The COVID-19 pandemic poses an obvious threat to physical safety, but advocates stress that Americans shouldn’t sleep on their mental health.
As the U.S. enters its second year of a public-health crisis that has claimed more than 537,284 American lives, caused a torrent of job losses and stifled in-person social interaction, 1 in 5 U.S. adults say they’re experiencing high levels of psychological distress, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center.
Adults aged 18 to 29, lower-income people, and people with a disability or health condition were particularly likely to report experiencing high psychological distress. The researchers measured this based on questions about anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, loneliness and physical distress symptoms.
Some have sought help: Americans’ use of telehealth for behavioral health visits during the pandemic’s early months was hundreds of times higher relative to the same months in 2019, according to a recent analysis of 12.5 million individuals’ insurance claims through August 2020 published by the Well Being Trust and Milliman.
Though use of behavioral health services declined when the pandemic began, “use of care involving behavioral health conditions fell less than other care, began to increase quickly starting in June 2020, and in subsequent months approached or exceeded comparable levels from 2019,” the analysis found — suggesting that as mental-health concerns have risen during COVID-19, many Americans have continued seeking out treatment.
“However, it is not clear whether the use of behavioral-health services has risen sufficiently to match increased needs created by the pandemic,” the white paper noted.
Social distancing is ‘actually physical distancing.’ ‘Socially, we can remain even closer.’
— Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
While the shared experience of navigating a pandemic can help individuals connect with one another, “it also is going to be different for different people, so that can create its own challenges,” Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told MarketWatch.
A variety of stressors, including job loss, poor health, self-isolation and quarantine, and general anxiety and uncertainty, could negatively impact mental health. Some people may also be struggling with existing conditions such as substance-use disorders or depression.
But “people are resilient,” said Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the American Psychological Association. “We can adapt,” she said. “We can get through this.”
Here are some coping strategies recommended by experts who spoke with MarketWatch last spring:
Tap into crisis hotlines
“One hundred percent, if you’re in crisis, call a hotline,” Wright said. To access coronavirus-related crisis counseling from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline, call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746. You can also reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Be kind to yourself
Normalize any intense uncomfortable emotions you’re having right now, said Joan Cook, a clinical psychologist and Yale School of Medicine associate professor who studies traumatic stress. Don’t judge yourself if you feel mild anxiety or depression, loneliness, boredom, frustration or anger. This is an unprecedented time for all of us, she said, and “there are a lot of unknowns.”
“While it’s important to ground ourselves by remembering to ‘count our blessings’ and be grateful for our lives and any privileges we have, it is equally important for us to acknowledge that social distancing, quarantine or isolation is hard,” Cook said. “And know that you are not alone in finding the consequences of social distancing, like losing our jobs or being physically distanced from family and friends, also very difficult.”
Give yourself credit if you are following the social-distancing directives of federal, state and local health officials, Cook added. “It’s important that we give ourselves the recognition when we do a good job,” she said. “You’re reducing the possibility of transmitting the virus, and protecting those who are most vulnerable.”
Address your physical health
You may be out of a job or working from home, but you still need to mind your basic human needs. Establish a routine, Wright said: Get enough sleep, get dressed in the morning, take a shower and eat a healthy diet. Exercise, she added, even if it’s just by going outside for fresh air. Build structure into an otherwise loose day by scheduling all of these needs, Moutier said.
“Mental health is not only critically important to pay attention to during COVID-19 for its own sake,” Moutier added, “but because the brain is connected to the body, how well we’re managing our mental health will directly affect our physical health — for example, things even like the strength of our immune system.”
Connect with friends, family and/or online communities
Stay in connected with friends and family through phone calls, text messages, FaceTime
video calls and social media. “We all need to put in extra effort right now,” Wright said. If you are struggling with tough emotions, reach out to the most trustworthy person in your life to share how you’re feeling, Moutier said; that simple act could be a game changer.
Laughter and play are “critically necessary” during this time, Moutier added. Moments of humor might be harder to come by right now, but try to prioritize them.
If you lack an existing social-support system, “now is the time to go out and find connection with others, even if you don’t know who they are,” Wright said. Seek out online support groups or social-media communities related to your interests. After all, social distancing is actually physical distancing, Moutier said. “Socially, we can remain even closer.”
Consume news wisely
Stay informed about the pandemic, especially at your local level, but try to get off your devices too, Wright said. “Find the bit of the news that either empowers you or doesn’t drive up your anxiety,” she said. Wright, for example, has found that TV pundits and Twitter
tend to make her more anxious. “Absolutely do not read the news or check stuff before going to sleep,” she added.
Take advantage of telehealth services
The federal government expanded access to telemedicine last year in response to COVID-19, as did some states. “If you are in therapy or mental-health treatment, make sure that you continue it and ask your provider specifically if they’re providing video chat or telehealth,” Moutier said.
If you believe your mental health is getting worse, seek help. “There’s evidence that shows that telehealth can be as effective as in-person treatment in many instances,” she said. The present situation “could be a tipping point for not just acceptance for telehealth, but also removing the barriers to it around reimbursement and access,” Wright said.
Try a mental-health app
Is your anxious mind racing at 100 miles per hour? Theresa Nguyen, the chief program officer for the nonprofit Mental Health America, suggested the mental-heath technique of grounding. “Grounding is a technique to use your five senses and just bring your attention to the present moment,” she said. “It’s very effective, because your mind can only think about one thing at a time.”
If you’re gardening, for example, put your hand in the soil and just focus on that. Touch whatever is around you or try reciting a mantra to yourself, and remember to breathe deeply.
Engage in activities you know will help you feel healthy and centered, Moutier said, whether it’s exercise like yoga, walking or running, or hobbies like reading, crafting or music. Relax yourself with deep breathing exercises. “Not everyone is a nature person, but there is a fairly common experience that being in nature is grounding in and of itself,” she added.
To reduce that feeling of existential dread…
Take each day as it comes. Much about the future of the pandemic remains unknown, and it’s easy to feel a sense of impending doom. Try to shorten the time frame of your perspective, Nguyen said: “If you find yourself going to, ‘What if the world is going to end?’ you want to bring it back a little closer to, ‘What am I going to do in two days, what am I going to do today, what does it look like right now?’”
This article was originally published March 30, 2020, and has been updated.