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Managing Mental Health During the Coronavirus Outbreak

The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has been dominating the media in recent weeks. News of the pandemic has been wide-spread and constant with the intent of keeping the public informed on the latest statistics. This barrage of information, however, has had a negative impact for many people and the uncertainty about what is going to happen over the next few months has already taken its toll, particularly for those who have pre-existing problems with their mental health.

On 23 March, the UK government announced new, stricter measures to help prevent the spread of the virus and to protect the most vulnerable in society. Effective immediately, these measures mean that people are required to stay at home, except for very limited purposes (i.e. for medical reasons or care needs, to exercise once a day and to travel to and from work where “absolutely necessary”). Shops selling non-essential goods have also been ordered to close.

The government will review these measures in three weeks’ time. Although it’s essential that we all comply with these measures, they will undoubtedly impact hugely on our lives in a way that most of us have never experienced before. How then can we take care of our mental health during such a challenging and uncertain time?

The Influence of Social Media Stress

For some, it is not the threat of catching the virus that is the problem. Fear and uncertainty has prompted mass panic-buying of health products and non-perishable foods - leaving shelves bare by the time vulnerable customers are able to get there. This has fuelled anxiety of being unable to get items for dietary needs (e.g. coeliac or diabetes) or to join in with the hysteria under the rationale of ‘just in case’.

The closure of doctors’ surgeries and pharmacies has restricted access to medication as well as cancellation of crucial appointments with counsellors and therapists. Worries over sick pay in certain industries have also forced people to go to work to still be able to pay bills despite the increased risk.

I asked several of my close friends how they have been coping with news of the pandemic. One has had to turn off social media as it gave her panic attacks on top of her existing worries about her current employment. Another has been worried about her mother catching the virus.

“I’ve booked off holiday next week because I’m worried about my mum, who is high-risk. Every day at work is just waiting for them to announce closure. I also worry that my work hours have dropped significantly. I’ve had to turn off certain notifications because it just gets too much.” (Lydia Walker, 24, Swindon)

Staying Connected while Staying Away

For those with disorders such as OCD, the fear of contamination has led to an increase in requesting support for dealing with excessive triggers brought on by the advice for hand washing. Constantly refreshing news sites for any updates on the virus has also become an obsession, and if isolation comes into effect, the boredom of staying in the house is anticipated to make OCD triggers worse.

With social events being postponed or cancelled, the suggestion of isolation has been a challenge for those who rely on being with others for support.

“The things that have helped me cope are all cancelled and being isolated and not seeing friends for potentially months is so horrible. [The] only thing I’m doing to keep myself going is obsessively working on costume projects, so I don’t fall into a deep depression.” (Bella Victoria, 25, Cardiff)

Taking a Step Back

In light of all the negativity, many have been taking precautions to protect their mental health. The most common method has been to avoid or limit the amount of time spent on social media.

“At the moment I’m just trying not to think about it and keep some sort of normality whilst staying safe.” (Jenny Meek, 23, Caerphilly)

Staying informed about recent events can be a good thing, but with each new case of the virus reported hourly, too much information poses a high risk of burnout.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published advice on how to protect mental health. The suggestions include:

  • Avoiding news that could cause you to feel anxious or distressed
  • Seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare plans to protect yourself and loved ones
  • Seek information updates only at specific times

Taking care of yourself, your friends and family, is a current priority to cope with the stress of the outbreak. Cut through the media noise by relying on the NHS and WHO for news updates, rather than the reports published on popular news sites.

Check in with friends and family on a regular basis via phone calls, texts or Skype. Establish times for communication with each other so as not to completely cut yourself off from the outside world.

It is also important to take care of your physical health. Exercise (within government guidelines, if outdoors), eat healthily and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Isolation does not mean staying in a dark room either. Open the curtains and windows, let in as much sunlight and fresh air as possible so as to shift your focus away from negativity. Keep your mind productive but allow yourself time to relax now and then.

Quest for Positivity

Another way that people have been dealing with their concerns about the pandemic is to focus on the positive aspects. In China, news has reported that more than 64,000 of its patients diagnosed with coronavirus have recovered. Support groups are being set up every day on social media sites with local communities coming together to provide aid for the elderly or people unable to get to the shops. People are volunteering to shop or donate items to others in need of things that are currently impossible to find.

Clearly, these are difficult and unusual times, but, now more than ever, it’s important that we all look after, not just our physical health, but our mental health too.

About the author

Jessica Capper

Jessica joined RWA in 2018, having graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Film Studies. Prior to this, she worked in a photography studio as a wedding album editor and also attended work experience at a local library.