Addressing Mental Health in the Era of COVID-19

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Many of us are entering week two of shelter in place orders- some have been in that reality longer, some more recently. The collective anxiety borne of the uncertainty of the times warrants attention. At the time of writing, several large digital mental health app companies have made COVID-19 specific content free or their entire product complimentary for the general public. I applaud making these tools available in these trying times, and the scientist in me also sees this as a significant natural experiment for how these tools can support mental health. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) has released seven responses to crises like COVID-19 that may inform how we weather the current storm.

  1.  Limit social media use– a good idea in normal times but not consuming news 24/7 is warranted in COVID-19. Citing research from the Zika virus, the more people read about the infection, the higher their perception of risk became. Leveraging communication channels to share evidence-based data will be essential and balancing that against creating a barrage of information will be necessary.
  2. More media consumption does not mean more health– the value proposition of following the media in times of crises means, on the one hand, you have an informed public, but too much consumption, based on research can contribute to spikes in acute stress.  Being mindful of how much media you are watching or listening to everyday will be as important as your healthy nutritional intake.
  3. Trustworthy information sharing– ensuring access to information from trusted sources will help individuals balance the risk perception. Given we are in an era where terms like “fake news” are in the public consciousness, we are also in an age of low trust. Leveraging trusted networks to share scientific information- being clear on who has vetted the data and their home institutions can build credibility.
  4. Lack of control is stressful- our daily routines, lives and livelihood have been upended for millions globally. At the time of writing, 1.5 billion people in the World are sheltering in place. Encouraging people to find ways to add structure to their day can provide a sense of control to improve stress. Emotions drive risk. We have seen in new COVID-19 instances in countries like Italy, people did not take this seriously in the early days. Italian culture is based on connection and socializing, so bars, restaurants and family gatherings were continuing, and so was the rampant spread of the virus. 
  5. Managing stress “in the moment”– there are two kinds of stress; eustress is the positive feelings we have, for example, when we win money in the lottery. Distress is the negative feelings that raise blood pressure, keep us awake at night and make us more prone to irritability with family and friends. Teaching skills to manage triggers and address those in real-time is necessary. Physiologically our bodies don’t differentiate between eustress and distress as the milieu is the same for both. Ensuring this doesn’t become a chronic state is essential.
  6. Health care workers need help- the people at the front lines of this pandemic need a special call-out. I would also add ancillary services that are keeping communities moving; store clerks, truck drivers, home help supporters are all at increased risk of COVID-19 exposure. Paying particular attention to supporting resilience and stress management in these groups at this time requires immediate attention. 
  7. Quarantine saves lives– a recent report in the Lancet by Samantha Brooks, PhD, at Kings College London suggests negative psychological consequences including confusion, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Data from China also suggest stress, insomnia, anxiety and depression are also hallmarks of people seeking online mental health services. Creating a routine at home, especially in families where children can still do some educational activities online to support their school routine. Being transparent and supportive of children without flooding them with adult stresses will help keep family units manage their stress levels.


Research also shows us that helping others boosts our levels of happiness. This is a time to come together and weave a new fabric of what our sense of community is, and from what I see, they have digital and physical components. Reach out the family and friends and stay connected as you practice social distancing. We are in this together. Practising self-care and social isolation help us individually and collectively as a society. Be well.


Thanks for reading – Trina 

(Opinions are my own)



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