Reducing the mental health burden of COVID-19: Is it possible?

This is a guest post from the Planetary Health Network of Young Professionals, written by Katharine Palmer, MPHKP has studied Psychology and Public Health, and is currently working as a Research Assistant. The article has been edited by Janice N. Averilla. For more posts on managing your mental health during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, see our resource pack.

A potential mental health crisis has been predicted in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, numerous people worldwide have already experienced or are currently experiencing anxiety, stress, or grief caused by the uncertainty, fear, or loss from a disease that has assaulted our plans and lifestyles. For some, the changes have been considerably minor, but for others they have been enormous and devastating. In countries where isolation in the household is strictly imposed, increasing concerns about the possible negative impact of this extended isolation on mental health have emerged. In a recent study conducted in China, those aged under 35 and those who consume three or more hours of COVID-19 related news per day report more anxiety and depressive symptoms, and medical professionals report getting less sleep due to long working hours.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often identified as one possible mental health consequence of COVID-19. Research from the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreaks in Toronto suggests that strict quarantine measures could cause an increase in PTSD symptoms and depressive symptoms for those in quarantine, particularly if they are lower income households. However, this study only investigated PTSD symptoms in quarantined individuals roughly two months after quarantine. How long symptoms will last, and if they will develop into a PTSD diagnosis, is still unknown. Identifying key factors, such as low income, that predispose people to more severe mental health outcomes can be useful to extend help to those most at risk. The Pan-America Health Organization has identified other essential factors including being part of a minority group, having a history of mental illness or chronic disease, or working with large numbers of patients. But, as so much of the world’s population has been affected by the pandemic, reducing the mental health burden for individuals with one or multiple risk factors appears challenging.

a pile of wooden blocks spelling out the words mental health

Improving mental health after a disaster takes a broad approach, and frequently focuses on solving practical problems to alleviate stress from a lack of food or shelter. By relieving the excess stress caused by a disaster, basic emotional needs can be met, reducing the risk of mental health disorders. In an ideal scenario, we imagine one-on-one or group therapy with a professional as a means of improving one’s mental health. On the contrary, and in the context of COVID-19, we face the reality that providing rapid mental health services to all who are in need is rather problematic, especially in many countries where these services have been limited even before the onset of the current pandemic. Thus, different approaches need to be undertaken to ensure the effectivity and sustainability of treatments.

One challenge unique to this pandemic is the lack of social contact, restraining social support amongst friends and families. With work and school taking place at home, many public mental health interventions that would typically occur in schools or offices are not permissible, although they may be useful in the later stages of the pandemic. Recently, there has been a call for online mental health help, such as counselling through WeChat, hotlines, or apps. Various organizations have also come up with helpful tips for handling coronavirus stress such as only looking at information from reliable sources, consuming less news, connecting with others, and accessing further help if they are in need. However, it is difficult to know where to access accurate information especially for those who do not have access to the internet as all online mental health resources rely on an internet connection. Finally, accessing such resources requires knowing that online mental health help is not a futuristic idea, but is currently available. Sharing and promoting these resources is helpful. Below are a few resources we find useful for mental health improvement:

Possible symptoms linked to stress, anxiety, or depression

Tips from the Mayo Clinic

Coping with traumatic events

COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in diverse ways and there has been an almost population-wide shared experience of lockdown stress. There are also many news stories and personal accounts of increased mental health burdens available online. Hopefully, the increasing attention to mental health will give those who are suffering the courage to speak out and seek help, in the comfort that they are not alone.

COVID-19 Health

Survey: Health and Wellbeing Under Lockdown

The after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are going to be felt for years to come. Some of these may be positive – for example global lockdowns have helped to (temporarily) improve air quality in cities. But what impact has restricting people’s movements had on individuals and their health and mental wellbeing? And how much are people getting out and about in nature during this time? Researchers from the University of Sheffield are hoping to find out.

English bluebells in a grassy field
Spending just five minutes in nature a day can boost self-esteem and improve mood.

This survey aims to capture data on whether people’s interactions with nature have changed since the onset of the pandemic. It takes roughly 15 minutes to complete and is completely anonymous.

Click here to complete the survey.

By completing the survey, you can contribute to research on the effects of nature on people’s health and wellbeing in the pandemic. We’ll be talking more about the importance of citizen science and public contributions to research in upcoming articles – keep an eye out for them on the website and our Facebook and Twitter.

A  sunny clearing between trees in a woodland
COVID-19 Health

Emotional Wellbeing: 9 Ways to Get Your Happiness Locked Down on Lockdown

With the UK Prime Minister announcing a nation-wide lockdown earlier this week after several days of social distancing, it’s safe to say that the Covid-19 outbreak is having a major impact on everyone’s lives. It’s easy to get overwhelmed – especially as the virus is the only topic on the news right now. We’re all facing the possibility of at least a few weeks staying inside at home, and that’s going to have a knock-on effect on people’s emotional wellbeing.

If you’re reading this, your brain is probably completely saturated with alarming news and statistics about the novel coronavirus. This article isn’t going to add to your stress – instead, we’ll be looking at ways you can improve your emotional wellbeing while on lockdown, and why staying at home is the best possible thing you can do right now. And if you really must look at Covid-19 news, a good place to start is this datapack from Information Is Beautiful.

1. Staying at home keeps you, and everyone around you, safer

Don’t look at this as being forced to stay inside. Reframe your perspective and see the lockdown as a way to avoid exposing yourself and your loved ones to the virus. If you’re home and following proper sanitisation procedures (washing your hands to whatever song floats your boat, regularly disinfecting surfaces and objects like your phone), it’s much less likely you’ll catch the virus or risk spreading it to anyone else outside your household. There’s an end goal in sight – we’re collectively trying to flatten the curve and keep the rate of infection (R0) lower than 1 (i.e., each infected person infects fewer than one other person.

Graph showing the effect of flattening the curve – this is what a lockdown is designed to achieve. From Information Is Beautiful.

2. Boost your emotional wellbeing by staying social

Loneliness and social isolation can have serious negative impacts on health and emotional wellbeing and many of us get most of our social interaction through the workplace or in school. Even though we may not be physically in the same room, the internet and messaging apps have given us all the tools we need to talk to people. You don’t need to use conferencing apps like Zoom just for work – grab yourself a cup of tea and some biscuits and settle in for a conference-call chat with your friends.

Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to video call people, make sure to check in with friends at least once every day – it’s likely they’re feeling just as stressed out by all of this as you are.

3. Give yourself a break from social media

Yes, we just told you to be more social. But that doesn’t include checking Twitter three hundred times a day. Misinformation about the virus is being shared everywhere, along with a constant stream of news broadcasts telling you things that are guaranteed to stress you out. Turn your social media notifications off, remove the apps from your phone, and put your phone out of reach. If you don’t want to stay away from social media completely, maybe take a look at who you follow and see if you can keep your feed stress-free.

4. Ditch the alarm clock

When was the last time you had a really good night’s sleep, and spent the whole day feeling energised? Sleep deprivation is bad for your emotional wellbeing. Really bad. It’s not clear how many people worldwide are sleep-deprived, but it’s probably a lot. There’s a fairly simple solution, and now we’re on lockdown it’s the perfect time to try it out:

Ditch your alarm.

Stop setting it.

Unless you have somewhere to be (let’s face it: unlikely) or an urgent deadline, try letting your body tell you when to wake up. The caveat is that you should probably try to go to sleep before midnight, otherwise you’ll probably find yourself sleeping well into the next day. Try it – you might be surprised at how quickly your body adapts to a good sleep rhythm.

5. Get a plant to look after

Houseplants are all the rage right now, but they’re not just good for brightening up your Insta feed. Gardening is surprisingly good for your mental health and emotional wellbeing. In fact, the Royal Horticultural Society has made gardening and mental health a key part of it’s science strategy. They’ve created four new Wellbeing Gardens around the National Centre for Horticultural Science. You can visit just as soon as the gardens are reopened. In the meantime why not pick up a houseplant next time you’re in the supermarket stocking up on toilet roll?

Houseplants are an easy way to improve your emotional wellbeing.

6. Pick up a home project you’ve been putting off

It doesn’t have to be a huge task. It can be as simple as emptying out that junk drawer that things disappear into, but never seem to come out of. Doing something that makes your life slightly easier in the long run will make you feel more productive. Plus, it helps stave off any feelings of lethargy that you might experience being inside for long periods without a clear schedule.

7. Get creative with your cooking

It’s easy to start mindlessly snacking when you’re home for long periods of time. This is probably not very good for you for a couple of reasons. One, eating unhealthy food is linked to increased stress, anxiety, and depression ( and you’re likely to consume more of it). Two, although you can go to supermarkets, you need to limit your trips there as much as possible. Social distancing!

Plenty of people are talking about what to do with those random tins you have at the back of the cupboard. A good place to start is Twitter, where chef and food writer Jack Monroe runs #JackMonroesLockdownLarder every night from 5pm.

8. Read a book

Bibliotherapy isn’t a hugely well-studied field, but storytelling has been around for millennia. Reading is an easy way to escape for a little while. With the lockdown in place, now is the time to get through your ‘to-be-read’ list. Services like Kindle, Google Play and Apple Books have ebooks you can buy if you can’t get hold of physical books. But did you know in the UK many libraries offer apps where you can loan free ebooks? You can use this postcode checker to see what services your local library has to offer.

Reading through a stack of books, an easy way to boost emotional wellbeing.
Work through that pile of books you’ve been meaning to read

9. Improve your emotional wellbeing by getting outside

Yes, we’re on lockdown. You’re still allowed outside once a day for exercise though – the important thing is to be smart about it. Find the quiet places in your local area. Even if it’s just a walk round the block, countless studies show the importance of getting some exercise every day. Trying to spend a little bit of your day in nature is good for you, too. Sensible precautions apply – if you’re showing symptoms or you’ve come into contact with someone who has, you should stay inside. Even if you can’t get outside every day, opening the windows will get some air moving in your house. It’s a good way to take advantage of the improved air quality in many cities – a result of the lockdown.

A view of a gorse common. Getting outside is great for you emotional wellbeing.
You can still go outside for some exercise – see if you can find some hidden gems close to home