It’s no surprise the Covid-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm for a mental health crisis. The incredibly stressful combination of a life-threatening health risk along with widespread unemployment, confinement, homeschooling, and uncertainty about the future is enough to make even the most secure individuals feel like they’re on the verge of a breakdown.
The situation is even worse for those already experiencing mental health issues, or in behavioral health or addiction treatment. Cut off from their daily routines, support groups and access to the therapy they rely on, these individuals are at high risk of a crisis episode. We’re already beginning to see the traumatic impact: calls to suicide hotlines have skyrocketed and the number of people who reached out to the national disaster distress helpline jumped 340% from February to March, and was nearly 900% higher than March of last year. And, this only represents 1) the first month of quarantine—April numbers remain to be seen; and 2) those who actually reached out, which we know is only a small portion of those who are struggling.
The key to preventing a downward spiral is to recognize the signs of a mental health decline. The trouble is, right now, many of us may not even realize the toll this pandemic is taking on our mental health. It’s easy to brush off these feelings as the “new normal,” especially because it seems to be so widespread. But, just because it’s common, doesn’t mean it’s OK. Here are some warning signs to be aware of and tips for easing the situation.
1. You’re grieving without realizing it. Aside from the loss of life to the disease, many are mourning the loss of life as they once knew it. The things we value and have built our identity around—jobs, school, sports, relationships, activities—for many people have been wiped away overnight. It’s natural to feel a sense of loss, but you may not recognize it as grief. Or, you may feel that if no one in your life has actually died from the disease, you’re not entitled to feel grief.
Start by recognizing grief for what it is and give yourself permission to feel that way. It’s OK to feel a sense of loss, sorrow, or even anger. Work through those emotions by writing in a journal or calling a friend to talk about how you’re feeling. Chances are you’re not alone, and that in itself can help lessen the burden.
2. You’re turning to a substance to cope. It’s become somewhat of a joke that people are drinking more than they ever have right now. With no commitments, no work to get to, no alarm to set, plus the stress of the situation, alcohol sales are up. Since many associates socializing with drinking alcohol, it’s become the main attraction when hosting Facetime chats or Zoom happy hours. While it’s OK to enjoy an occasional adult beverage, so long as there’s not already an underlying addiction or you’re in recovery, this can become a slippery slope for many. Alcohol is a depressant, which compounds many of the emotions you’re already feeling.
Instead of a drinking binge, find other activities that can be done virtually with friends. Play charades, start a book club, host a knitting group, or other activity that allows you to still get together and talk.
3. Your sleep routine is off. There’s a lot to worry about right now which can cause your mind to race, making it challenge to sleep. Not only is your routine out of whack since you may be out of work, not exercising as regularly, and missing other activities that naturally make you tired by the end of the day, but if you’re drinking more regularly, that can also ruin your sleep cycle. Lack of sleep makes us cranky, less energetic, and more stressed, and the inability to sleep well at night can lead to napping during the day, making it difficult to sleep at night. It’s a vicious cycle.
Try to get back to a good sleep hygiene routine. Find something to stay busy so you can skip the mid-day nap. Then, when it’s time for bed, take a hot bath, read (from an actual book-electronics before bed can hinder sleep), or meditate to help calm your mind. Unplug from the troubling news and stop bringing work, homework, or other non-sleep activities into bed. Reserve the bedroom as a sleep sanctuary.
4. You’re emotionally isolating from others. A byproduct of physical distancing is that we don’t have the natural triggers that bring us into an emotional space with those we care about. Without physical presence, connecting may seem like a hassle or too much work. For introverts, isolation makes it easier to retreat further from those around us. For extroverts, the energy we get from being around others has been eliminated, so it’s harder to make the effort.
Sometimes all it takes is one outreach to break the cycle. Making one phone call to a friend can be enough to bring you out of the funk. The conversation will help you realize that you’re not alone and may give you the impetus to reach out to more people. Plus, you never know how badly the other person may have needed to hear from you. The idea that it may help to lift them out of a funk as well can add to your feelings of reward.
5. You’ve stopped caring about appearance or practicing self-care. When there’s no place to go, it may seem like there’s no point in taking a shower, getting dressed, or doing other parts of your normal self-care routine. Societal expectations and our own self-esteem drive these behaviors, but when we’re not leaving the house coupled with feeling discouraged or helpless by the events going on around us, it’s easy to let this go. This can be a physical warning sign that your mood is starting to digress.
Practicing self-care and taking pride in your appearance is a great opportunity to take control of what you can—your own body—when so much feels beyond your control. Take a shower, get dressed up, do your makeup and hair, and post some selfies on social media. Schedule a Facetime call with friends to force you to get ready. Or, plan a formal date night with your significant other where you order takeout and get dressed as though it’s a night out on the town. These little things can go a long way toward helping you feel more engaged in life.
During times of uncertainty and extreme stress, it’s important to be honest with yourself about how you feel, and to recognize that you’re not the only one feeling this way. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help. You’re never going to be a burden to a friend or family member, and you never know how much they may have needed to hear from you, as well.
Finally, if you’re feeling especially helpless, hopeless or have suicidal thoughts, please call 1-800-273-TALK or text HELP to 741741 where trained counselors can help you navigate a crisis. It’s completely confidential, and they can even help you to find some local resources and connect you with professionals offering telehealth sessions.
Marlon Rollins PhD, is the CEO of Laguna Treatment Hospital.