In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are frequently told how to look after the health of ourselves and our communities. Maintaining high levels of basic hygiene, including frequent hand washing, has been recommended by health authorities across the globe, from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services to the World Health Organisation.
With the same rigour, we should also consider how COVID-19 is affecting our mental health. We are collectively experiencing something that many of us have not experienced in our lifetime, with significant social and economic impacts. This means we don’t have a ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ response that we can default to, and we are also uncertain about how long our changed lifestyles will continue. These circumstances all pose a threat to our mental as well as physical wellbeing, and it is worth reflecting on how we can maintain good mental health at this time.
The information below is derived from advice provided by mental health organisations, mental health experts, government departments and intergovernmental organisations.
1. Stay Connected
What has been termed social distancing is an incredibly important part of slowing the rate of infection of COVID-19. The term social distancing is unfortunate though, because it can make people feel as though they need to distance themselves from others altogether, which is just not the case. We need to be distancing ourselves physically, but there are many ways to stay connected socially.
The World Health Organisation has officially started using the term physical distancing instead of social distancing to reflect this important distinction. In times of uncertainty, it is especially important to stay connected with your social network by regularly checking in.
A great place to start is calling or messaging friends and family. If you want to see a human face then you can video call using Zoom or Skype, or you can use one of many social media and messaging apps that you probably already have – Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber all support video calling.
2. Reach out
It is okay to not be okay.
This is always true, regardless of whether we are in the middle of a global crisis pandemic or not. The reason it is important to remember that it is okay to not be okay, now and always, is because doing so can help us feel more comfortable to reach out and ask for help when we need it.
Allowing ourselves to accept that we might not be okay is hugely important, but it isn’t the only thing we need to do to prepare ourselves to reach out for help when we need it.
We also need to know who to reach out to.
Your friends and family are an incredibly important support network, but not always appropriate. If you feel as though you need to talk to someone else, here are some great services that you can use:
● Beyond Blue
If you have been feeling depressed or anxious, you can call 1800 512 348 or visit the Beyond Blue online forum.
If you are having thoughts about harming yourself or taking your own life, you can call 13 11 12 (24 hours/7 days)
You can also chat to Lifeline online (7pm – midnight, 7 nights).
General Practitioners are also able to help their patients access affordable psychological support using a mental health care plan. If you would like to know more, contact your GP.
3. Stay reliably informed
It can be hard to keep your mental health in check when you are inundated with news and updates on COVID-19. It seems as though every day there is news about the spread of the virus, possible cures and vaccines and the progress of flattening the curve. Media storms like the one we are currently experiencing can be overwhelming because it is hard to know what to believe as credible and what to note as speculative.
A good way to address this issue of uncertainty is to make sure that you are getting information from credible sources.
If you want to stay reliably informed, here are some providers of information that you can trust:
● The World Health Organisation
● Australian Government
● Victorian Department of Health and Human Services
4. Stay healthy
Maintaining good physical health is an important part of maintaining good mental health.
The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services has provided advice on how to look after both your mental and physical health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and so too has Eastern Health, a major health service in Melbourne. A recent article published by EH outlines some important things to bear in mind when staying healthy in isolation:
Try to maintain a balanced diet, using mainly fresh ingredients. Many supermarkets and local stores are delivering produce, which is a great option for those who feel anxious about trips to the supermarket or grocery store.
Exercise is one of the accepted reasons for leaving the house. Make sure you are in groups no larger than 2 people and maintain a distance of 1.5m from everyone who is not a member of your household.
Maintaining healthy relationships is pivotal to good mental health, so take advantage of aps to have virtual catch ups, or simply make a phone call. Now is an important time to think of those in your network who live alone – they are likely to be feeling the impact of social distancing more acutely than others. If this is you, remember to reach out to friends and family regularly.
You can also get creative about how you go about looking after your physical and mental health – why not focus on both at the same time and do a home workout with some friends over video call?
5. Be ambitious…
If you are finding yourself stuck at home and without much to do, this could be a great opportunity to do that one thing that you have always wanted to try but never had the time to.
Have you always wanted to learn that musical instrument that is collecting dust under your bed? How about something artistic, like drawing, sculpting or painting? Maybe now is the time to finesse. your literary skills by writing a short story, song or poem; or maybe you can test out some recipes you’ve always wanted to try…
Learning a language can also be a fantastic way to feel productive while at home, and online classes are available with many local institutions, including the Alliance Français, Centre for Italian Studies, El Patio Spanish Language School, Japanese Language & Culture School, and many others. For something more casual, aps like DuoLingo can be a great starting point.There are also ways to turn your daily exercise into part of a goal; maybe now is the time to train for that 5k, half-marathon or marathon you never had time to strive for when you were travelling to and from the office each day? Runner’s World magazine has many training plans and advice for a range of skill levels and goals.
Or perhaps you would prefer to spend your time learning a different kind of skill? The non-profit edX is a massive open online course provider. It hosts online university-level courses from universities all over the world, many of which are free to access.
It doesn’t really matter what you choose to do to fill your time, but in general doing something productive is beneficial for mental health.
6. …But also be self-compassionate
At the same time, the impact of COVID-19 is different for every individual. Some will suffer from doubts about when they will next see family members overseas; some will fear for their economic security as the job market shifts and shrinks; some will worry about the health of elderly or vulnerable members of the community, including family and friends.
While setting goals and embracing new habits is a terrific ambition while you have extra time on your hands, if you choose to spend that time simply reading a book, going for a walk, or cooking a meal, that is okay too. Remember to treat yourself with the same compassion you would a friend or relative – and don’t be too hard on yourself if you are not as productive as you might be under ordinary circumstances.
7. And remember, we are in this together
As an international community, we are experiencing something that is exceptionally challenging. As a result, it is normal to feel as though your mental health is may not be as good as it has been in the past. Accepting that it is okay to not be okay is the first step toward improving your mental health, and the above strategies may also help you to maintain sound mental health throughout the challenging months ahead.
Written by: Callum Jones