By Bart Magee, Ph.D.
The failure of a timely and effective public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to adopt extreme measures to limit the spread of the virus. While these measures can be successful in “flattening the curve” of new infections, they’ve been taken with little thought or preparation for their mental health consequences. Our new environment of social isolation and anxiety, mixed with misinformation and confusion, creates the perfect kindling for a mental illness bonfire.
What can we do now to help avert a mental health catastrophe? In the same way that we quickly adopted “social distancing,” we can change our behavior in ways that will help prevent coronavirus-induced mental illness.
Stop spreading fear. Pair public health notices about the risks of infection with words of reassurance and hope. So far, the messaging has over-emphasized a narrative of fear and doom: “be afraid of infection, stay indoors, avoid all contact.” This message starts with government leaders, gets repeated by the media, and then filters down to echo within social circles. The amplified narrative contributes to a shared panic, where anxiety fuels a need to assert control through irrational behavior like stockpiling toilet paper, attacking Asians, and boarding up shop windows. These actions do nothing other than increase a feeling of fear and lead to an erosion of mental stability. A population in a constant state of “fight or flight” accumulates toxic effects on the brain and body which, over time, contribute to ill health (heart disease, diabetes, addiction, and mental illness).
We know how to do it differently. Consider how we teach children. We don’t just use a sledgehammer of fear, threats, and punishment to shape behavior; we also provide guidance and support. Similarly, public and interpersonal conversation should include both information on how to behave–wash hands, don’t touch your face, maintain physical distance–with more supportive advice: it’s a fact that these simple measures will decrease infections; these are temporary measures; life will return to normal; if we work together we will come out of this ok. This is the difference between yelling “fire” in a crowded theater and alerting people of the immediate danger and offering clear direction.
Clearly, leaders need to adjust their messaging; however, each one of us can help. Passing on sensational and emotionally dramatic anecdotes may feel cathartic and gratifying, but it spreads the virus of anxiety. Think twice about repeating a story that made you anxious. We all need to be mindful of the effect we have on each other. It’s better to pass on real facts, information, and messages that highlight our creative capacities as we adapt to difficult circumstances.
Model and encourage healthy habits. During stressful times the most important thing we can do is take care of ourselves and model that behavior for others. Maintaining a structured daily routine, exercising for least 30 minutes a day, keeping up with social interactions, and getting good sleep are all vital to physical and mental health and a stronger immune system. Given the barrage of negative information, uncertainty, and loss, all of this will take extra effort. One key step in this process is limiting one’s intake of news. Thirty minutes in the morning (not before bed) is more than enough to catch up on the latest developments. Stick to trustworthy sources, avoiding news passed around on social media, which tend to be the most sensational stories. Maintaining our mental health is something that we can all do together. The next time you talk to a friend, rather than sharing scary story about the pandemic, ask them what they are doing to stay emotionally balanced? Do they know of any good relaxation techniques? Are there websites or apps they are using for exercise and socialization? You can also share what you are doing to stay healthy and what you are doing to limit news consumption. By changing the conversation, we are changing the interpersonal atmosphere from one of fear and isolation to one of connection and hope.
Check in with the more vulnerable. People who are vulnerable to anxiety, loneliness, and depression or those who have post-traumatic stress disorder or struggle with substance dependence all need extra support during these times. You know who they are among your friends and family. Remember that an empathic call or a thoughtful email from you will makes a big difference; most importantly, by reminding them that they are not alone. When you check in, you can also be ready to offer additional resources and suggest that they find support. This outside support is crucial to people in a mental health crisis, as their capacity to think and look for support can be impaired. These kinds of actions build real social connection and are meaningful ways for all of us to contribute to the bigger effort to avoid a mental health catastrophe.