Establish routines, tackle new projects, stay in touch with others, seek professional help. These are among the strategies experts recommend to tend to your mental health as the pandemic continues to play out.
Written by Michaela Gibson Morris
Many of us are hunkered down in an effort to protect the physical health of our families and community.
People are passing on hugs, handshakes, coffee dates and family reunions to limit the spread of COVID-19. Working and worshipping are distanced. Baseball fields, soccer pitches and playgrounds are off limits. Masks hide our smiles in public.
Mental health, especially during these anxious times, needs tending, too. Because people are cut loose from normal daily routines and physical contact with extended family and friends, they don’t have access to many of the healthy coping strategies they normally fall back on.
“There are things we can’t do, but there are more things we can do,” said Russell Chumley, a family and marriage counselor at North Mississippi Medical Center Behavioral Health Center.
Those steps can be small things, like making dinner or cleaning out a closet, but they do need to be deliberate.
“Putting coping skills into practice is not going to happen on its own,” said Chumley, who has been posting mental health wellness suggestions on his Facebook page.
Ken Kellum of Tupelo decided to challenge his Facebook friends to exercise and get outside every day and share photos. Kellum transitioned from the highly scheduled life of a physician to making pottery in his home workshop 18 months ago.
“I just wanted to share, even if it doesn’t feel like much,” Kellum said.
Since then, he’s posted walking and jogging selfies, along with pets, kids, fishing and a fish taco. People have reciprocated with photos of their own walks, gardening efforts and family moments.
“It’s been surprising,” Kellum said. “I like seeing what people are doing.”
Kellum, who had to tend to his own mental health struggles, tries to do something every day to care for his mind, soul and body.
“It keeps you in balance,” Kellum said. “You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.”
It isn’t easy to manage the anxieties that COVID-19 has added to our lives. Mental health professionals across the country are concerned about the mental health repercussions of the pandemic.
It’s not clear what the impacts will be, especially in the face of additional waves of outbreaks.
“In this case, it could be a tsunami of serious mental health problems,” said psychiatrist Dr. Tom Insel, who led the National Institute of Mental Health for 13 years and now serves as the mental health czar for California.
That includes people who already had chronic mental health concerns, those who lost their livelihoods and front-line health care workers overwhelmed by stress and grief, said Insel during a video conference call with health reporters.
Increasing rates of suicide were already a concern before COVID entered the picture. Looking at suicide trends following the 1929 stock market crash in the United States, the peak in suicides actually came in 1933-34, Insel said. More troubling, is that during the economic recovery, the suicide rates didn’t return to pre-crash levels.
This is why it’s so important for people to take stock of their mental health now and take the steps they can.
“There’s concern that in the process of being in survival mode, we won’t take care of ourselves and it will build,” Chumley said.
While positive attitude can be helpful, it’s perfectly fine to not be fine.
“You are going to have anxiety, irritability, frustration and boredom,” Chumley said. “Have those thoughts without guilt.”
Families untethered from highly regimented schedules of school, work and activities do need to find new routines.
“We all feel safe when we have structure around us,” Chumley said. “Bed times can be adjusted, but we need structure to feel like things are normal to as much of a degree.”
Taking good care of the body boosts the mind. It’s important to stay on track with medications, eat as healthfully as possible, exercise and get enough sleep, Chumley said
Physical activity through exercise or chores can fulfill a double duty, helping to manage anxiety.
“You need to release the extra energy,” Chumley said.
Limiting social media and news can also be helpful for controlling anxiety. Give yourself a time out. Take a bath, meditate or watch a funny movie.
It’s extremely important to stay connected with people. If possible, video chat so you see faces and eyes in addition to voices, Chumley said. Find small ways to help others. It’s very empowering.
It’s important to reach out and ask for help. Some people may just need to talk to a trusted friend. Others may need a mental health professional, and there are resources available, Chumley said.
Thoughts of harming yourself or others should be a red flag that you need immediate assistance, Chumley said. Other warning signs include loss of appetite, not feeling rested after a full night’s sleep, loss of interest in once enjoyable activities, intense emotions that are disconnected from the situation or extreme overreactions.
Many counselors and therapists are providing care by phone and video visits. National resources are available by phone and online. Regional mental health centers in Mississippi, like LifeCore, have mobile crisis units.
“There are people who can respond very quickly,” Chumley said.
Talkspace.com offers digital behavioral health services, provides free online therapy for medical workers and offers free public resources through its blog.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness offers tips and links to mental health resources. 800-950-6264; nami.org
Mental Health America has Covid-19 mental health resources online at mhanational.org
LifeCore offers community mental health services. 662-640-4595; crisis line 866-255-9986; lifecorehealthgroup.com
Mississippi Department of Mental Health helpline: 877-210-8513; dmh.ms.gov
Child Mind Institute has resources for parents and children at childmind.org