May is Mental Health Month, which makes it a good time to consider the mental health consequences of the coronavirus epidemic. Because of the public health advisory that we should keep a physical distance away from anyone not in our household, many people have been forced into a state of isolation. Even before the pandemic, loneliness was becoming a growing problem. In addition to its psychological effects, loneliness increases the risk of chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure and heart disease, weakens the immune system, and can contribute to cognitive decline. Indeed, loneliness has been called a greater threat to health than obesity whose physical effects have been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
As the crisis continues for an extended period, other psychological effects have been exacerbated. According to a survey from the American Psychiatric Association, a large percentage of people are feeling anxious and stressed during this time. That is caused not only by fears that they or their loved ones will contract the disease but also by worries about not having enough money, food, and medicine. Another survey showed similar results, with nearly three-quarters of respondents saying that the pandemic has caused a major disruption to their lives.
During this tumultuous time, people should know that help is available. Some resources include the Aunt Bertha online platform, which lets people search for free or low-cost services in their area. Many government entities and nonprofits are also offering resources to help with issues ranging from food insecurity to domestic violence, which has likely increased during the pandemic as some people are trapped with their abusers. Another free resource is a 24 hour, 7 days a week helpline staffed by counselors who are trained to help people during disasters like the coronavirus pandemic (it has experienced a huge increase in calls recently). Although in-person access to providers’ offices is limited now, behavioral health appointments through an online platform have been found to be “cost effective and can lead to efficient and adaptable solutions to the care of patients with mental illnesses, with promising outcomes.” Fortunately, people are taking advantage of the opportunity to seek therapy online, with many virtual services reporting a large rise in use.
While it is necessary to convey information about resources and services offered during this crisis, that is not all people are looking for. Those who feel alone and scared want to know that there are people and organizations they can turn to for support and connection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Field Epidemiology Manual contains a chapter on communicating during an outbreak. Not surprisingly, it counsels on the best ways to explain the threat and why public health actions are being taken. But first and most importantly, it says, start with empathy: “Acknowledge concerns and express understanding of how those affected by the illnesses or injuries are probably feeling. Recognize orally and in written materials that persons are anxious or worried and that you, too, have concerns. Demonstrate that you care and are working to understand their perspective.”
Let’s make Mental Health Month a reminder to reach out to people and to show that their well-being matters to you. Or, as the saying attributed to Theodore Roosevelt goes: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
To learn more about how HMS can help you promote mental health and wellness strategies by connecting members to available resources during this time of social distancing, contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org