The coronavirus pandemic has consumed our lives for months. We’ve been relentlessly focused on protecting ourselves and our loved ones from illness, monitoring the outbreak’s spread and hoping for any sign of a successful vaccine—all while striving to interact with friends, family and co-workers through Zoom. Not surprisingly, we’ve learned that feeling closed off from the rest of the world can put tremendous strain on our mental health.
Those already living with mental health challenges are at particular risk, explains Joshua Thomas, Ph.D., CEO and executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Delaware, adding that some people who have gone undiagnosed are now recognizing that they may have a mental illness.
According to a March study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45 percent of Americans say their mental health has been affected by the coronavirus, and more than half are worried about being exposed to the virus because of a lack of paid leave and healthcare coverage at work.
“[Research shows that] about half of Americans are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety throughout the pandemic,” Thomas says. While these feelings are common in an “abnormal situation” like a pandemic, disrupted routines and limited social contact can be additionally damaging.
“[The pandemic] did three things: It exacerbated existing anxieties, created new ones and formed unnatural amounts of stress,” says Rosi Crosby, director of community engagement at Jewish Family Services of Delaware. “Our ability to release the tensions we feel throughout our everyday lives is now very limited, magnifying the stress we face on a new, daily basis.”
For those who have lost a loved one to the virus, the mental toll can be devastating, as can uncertainty about the future.
“[The pandemic] did three things: It exacerbated existing anxieties, created new ones and formed unnatural amounts of stress.” —Rosi Crosby
A recent survey of 1,468 adults by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported that common symptoms associated with psychological distress—including feelings of loneliness and fears accompanying social distancing, economic disparity and high unemployment rates—have risen from 3.9 percent in 2018 to 13.6 percent this year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pandemic stress can even lead to harmful long-term behaviors like substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
And at a time when more people seek support, some mental health facilities are closed.
“Limited access to reliable information, as well as the continued uncertainty regarding safety, have further kept those with mental health issues from reengaging and reestablishing personal connections with one another,” Thomas says. “Not knowing if they are going to be safe or not continues to create mass discomfort alongside mass anxiety to approaching everyday life, leaving them behind during the transition to normalcy.”
There must be a balance between physical and mental health, says Crosby. “The traumatic component [of COVID-19] is very real, as is the grief—and now this question of people receiving closure from their experiences, figuring out how to accept what has happened in the past and how to move on to the future.”
“Not knowing if they are going to be safe or not continues to create mass discomfort alongside mass anxiety to approaching everyday life, leaving them behind during the transition to normalcy.” —Joshua Thomas, Ph.D.
As Delaware beings to reopen, the readjustment can be challenging. That’s why it’s vital to look after ourselves and one another.
“During this time, it’s important to take care of your health,” Thomas says. “Set up structure within your life—maintain a steady diet, exercise, rest. Things like dressing up for work or talking to your supervisors in advance about new practices and safety protocols can also be helpful at controlling anxiety.”
In addition to reestablishing daily routines, Crosby suggests “immersing yourself in activities that harness both physical and mental strength,” whether that’s yoga or standup paddleboarding, distance running or even a 30-minute stroll.
“The stronger you are, the more combatable you are,” toward both the virus and stress, she notes.
Additionally, says Thomas, meditation and mindfulness help “provide direction rather than aimlessness.”
It’s also crucial to support one another with respect and understanding, Crosby adds, especially while the virus is still spreading and fear is heightened.
“The stronger you are, the more combatable you are … toward both the virus and stress.” — Rosi Crosby
“Everyone is affected by these stressors brought onto us by the pandemic,” Crosby says, “but everyone has a different level of concern. Following the rules established by the medical community allows for those with the least tolerance and the highest anxiety to live without fear of judgment.”
Talking about realities resets reality for us, Thomas says. “Seeking mental health professionals and other specialists, and even COVID-19 resource pages for suggestions as to how to manage your stress or anxiety encourages people to be proactive and get themselves prepared for that inevitability of going back into the world again.”
“The beauty of having protocols is that it provides cover for those with any mental health concern to be OK,” Crosby said. “[Regardless of] whatever your situation might be—or what you do to make it better—no one will judge you as you readjust.”