Mental Health and COVID-19

Coronavirus has changed the way we live, albeit temporarily, but spare a thought for those with existing health problems, and particularly those whose mental health issues are exacerbated by the crisis.

The CDC warns that the COVID-19 is likely to be most dangerous for older people or people with underlying health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and lung diseases such as asthma. But spare a thought for those that are especially susceptible to high levels of stress and low moods, and those that desperately need one-to-one mental health care on a regular basis and have had their meetings either cancelled or moved online. Or consider the experience of  those who need in-patient care because they qualify as an acute risk to themselves or others but can’t get the referrals they need because GP’s are closed and telephone lines are overcrowded, or people that narrowly survive suicide and need urgent care but can’t get a hospital bed.

This issue is the same for any illness, injury, or ailment that people regularly experience, and will continue to experience under the ensuing months of NHS overstretch. People will continue to break bones, get cancer, and experience heart attacks. This is going to be difficult. The NHS is already overstretched, and it’s going to get worse.

However, in the case of mental illness, there are ways we can try to minimise COVID-19’s effects.

People are right to be concerned for those at higher risk of complications; we cannot go on as normal and pretend everything is okay. But fostering an environment of hysteria and chaos is going to cause an equally vulnerable group to experience complications – people with pre-existing mental health conditions, or people that are especially susceptible to stress and anxiety.

To those of us lucky enough not to belong to this category of people, think of those who do. 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues every year. This means we can expect everybody to be relatively close to someone that has or will experience mental health issues in the coming months. Before you share hysterical posts on social media that might be funny to you, think of those that might not find it so funny. Before you panic that you have no toilet roll or pasta, try to put things in perspective. This is temporary, and it is unlikely to seriously affect the vast majority of people infected. Foster an atmosphere of calm if you’re lucky enough to be able to; not everyone has that privilege.

To those of us that experience or are close to someone with depressive tendencies, the idea of staying inside for months might be daunting. Mind highlights the benefits that being outdoors and in nature can have in fighting low moods, stress and anger. Whilst social distancing is important, and we should be careful to avoid crowded spaces, this could provide an opportunity to enjoy open spaces, like parks, for example. Yes, we need to keep social interaction to a minimum, but long walks on your own or with a friend at a farther distance can be a great way to enjoy the natural world and brighten your mood.

To those of us with a history of eating disorders, an inability to move or exercise in quarantine, and a focus on hoarding/running out of food might be very triggering. Try your best to avoid the temptation to reduce food intake, psychologically excusing yourself for fear of running out of food at home, or compensating for a lack of movement. Remember that movement isn’t the only reason your body needs calories. Your body needs fuel to function for a whole host of activities; your brain functions on food, and your cells replace themselves using energy from food. Most importantly, in the context of COVID-19, your immune system thrives on a well-balanced diet. Make sure you’re doing everything you can to keep yourselves or your loved ones healthy – body and mind – during these coming months.

To those of us that are close to people that struggle to deal with changing environments and social norms – such as those on the autistic spectrum – be mindful to take extra care to make their lives easier. Not everyone perceives the world in a neurotypical way. Skipping classes, staying at home, and changing routines will be very difficult for some people. Be mindful of that if you have the privilege not to be as affected by such changes. Before you actively break government guidelines by going to a communal gathering, for example, think about how that might affect someone close to you that struggles with breaking prescribed rules.

To those of us who will need, or know someone who will need, urgent care from mental health professionals within the coming months, know where to look for help. Most mental health services in the UK are advising to move appointments online or telephone to keep social contact to a minimum. This might be difficult for some people, especially those who struggle to break from routine, but it seems the best solution we have for the time being. Don’t allow this situation to let yourself, or a loved one, slip out of the system; some help is better than no help. CAHMS has made clear that in the event of significantly reduced staffing, the most at risk patients will be prioritised. This will be difficult for a lot of people who desperately need care, but don’t qualify as the most at-risk patients. It is therefore all the more necessary to foster an environment of calm and reduce anxieties.

There are a number of other places that people can try to look for help, if the NHS is failing them at this time. A few examples:

Mind, Samaritans, BEAT, National Autistic Society, rethink, SaneLine, shout, kooth, Childline,

Not to mention university or school wellbeing/counselling services.These next few months will be challenging for everyone, and our health services will be overstretched. But if you’re in a position to reduce a vulnerable person’s burden, do so. Keep in telephone contact with loved ones with health conditions that put them at risk, to reduce feelings of loneliness. Be wary of hysteria-driving posts on social media. Be mindful of people that might not cope well with changing environments. Know where to seek help if you need it and can’t get it from the overstretched NHS.

Try to stay calm, foster an atmosphere of normalcy, and be empathetic to people that don’t have it as easy as you. Remember that this is temporary; life will get easier.

Lots of people will suffer due to COVID-19, and for a lot of people there’s little that can be done to mitigate these risks. COVID-19’s effects on mental health, however, can be minimised. We can and should be working together to protect the most vulnerable in our society: the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, but not least, those that have or are susceptible to ill mental health.

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