COVID-19, Mental health blog, social work

How to manage your mental health during a pandemic

There’s a lot of media coverage right now about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hard to think about anything else when we’re bombarded with it all day long. It seems to be all that anyone is talking about. I came across a few posts asking what people can and are doing to manage their mental health at this difficult time. I contemplated writing this blog post since I didn’t want to add to the never-ending posts on the subject, but I do feel this particular conversation is very important right now. Here are a few things you can do to manage your mental health at this time.

Talk to a qualified mental health professional

A counsellor and client sitting opposite each other and engaged in a conversation. There is a table with a plant, two glasses of water, and books between them.

I can appreciate that not everyone has access to therapy, either by not having the income to support this independently or not having insurance to cover all or most of the costs. As a mental health case manager, I’ve done a lot of research on more accessible options for low and moderate-income folks. I will outline what I have learned below, with the disclaimer that some of the options will only make sense for Canadians or Ontarians, as this is where I practice.

Publicly funded mental health care

There are publicly funded mental health services available at many hospitals. Services typically include assessment, counseling, case management, and group programs. These services are usually covered by provincial health plans. To see if your local hospital has these services, contact them directly or Google your hospital’s name and the words “mental health services” to see what comes up (i.e. “Sunnybrook Hospital mental health services”). This is always a good place to start because, even if they don’t have readily available programs, they may be able to steer you toward other free or low-cost programs in your community.

Community counselling agencies

Communities often have some sort of community counseling agency, many of which offer free or sliding scale counseling services. To see if there is an agency in your community, try Googling “community counseling agency” plus your location (i.e. “community counseling agency Medicine Hat, Alberta”).

Nurse Practitioner-Led Clinics and Family Health Teams

If you are a part of a Nurse Practitioner-Led Clinic (NPLC) or a Family Health Team (FHT) for your primary health care, chances are they have a mental health counselor, such as a Social Worker or Mental Health Clinician on their team. Let your Nurse Practitioner (NP) or Doctor know that you have been experiencing poor mental health lately and request a referral for counseling services. If you are not a part of an NPLC or FHT but you have a Doctor, let your Doctor know how you’ve been feeling and they may have some options for you.

Employee Assistance Programs

If you are employed, your employer may provide you with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which provides short-term counseling services. To find out if your employer provides this, ask your manager, Human Resources Department, Union Representative, or Health and Safety Representative. If you are not comfortable asking these people, you can ask colleagues that you trust.

Crisis lines

Several free mental health crisis lines can be accessed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In my experience working on a crisis line, you do not need to be in imminent danger or suicidal to access these services. Many people call because they are stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious and they just don’t know who to talk to about it. A big selling factor for some people is the anonymity option for many of these services. To find a crisis line near you, Google “crisis line” plus your location (i.e. “crisis line Toronto”).

Take a media break

A cellphone with the Facebook loading screen and the word Facebook scratched out.

If you can, do a full digital detox and stay off of all social and news media for a while. If this is not feasible for your life circumstances, consider muting or snoozing the people and topics that bring you the most anxiety for awhile. There are functions on various social media platforms, such as FacebookTwitter and Instagram, that allow you to stop seeing (or at least greatly reduce) certain content in your feeds for a while. Click on the respective hyperlinks for more information. This doesn’t mean you can’t know what’s going on in the world at all, but it ensures that highly stressful content isn’t the only thing you see all day and it puts you in control of when and where you access this information.

Only seek updates from reputable sources

A stack of newspapers.

While it isn’t always helpful to our mental health to be inundated with posts about a pandemic, it also isn’t always helpful to be completely in the dark about these things either, because a wandering mind can go down some pretty dark roads. Additionally, we don’t want to miss any important updates on the situation as it develops. The problem is, it isn’t always easy knowing who to trust for information online these days.

When it comes to health information, however, it is best to stick with well-known health entities, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), federal health ministries and agencies (i.e. the Public Health Agency of Canada for Canadians and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for Americans), provincial or state health ministries, and local public health agencies. As with anything else, there is a lot of misinformation floating around the internet right now about the COVID-19 pandemic. Use good judgment and practice ethical content consumption to avoid being sucked into the fear-mongering.

Become aware of disaster capitalism

Screenshot of an ad for an 8 ounce Purell hand sanitizer 2 pack being sold for $99.99 plus $6.04 shipping.

Anywhere you can find fear, you can be sure to find people who are seeking to profit off of it. Just look at what is happening with the attempted price gouging for things like hand sanitizer and toilet paper. People are taking full advantage of the scarcity of these resources right now. It is important to remember that it is in some people’s economic interest for you to be afraid. As such, it is in their interest to spread that fear in any way possible, including by spreading blatant misinformation. Be wary of these attempts to induce panic among the masses and actively resist them by utilizing all of the suggestions mentioned throughout this article.

Practice prevention

Someone washing their hands under a tap.

There is nothing to be gained from worrying about the things we can’t control. That is why, in times when the things out of our control feel scary, it is of the utmost importance to focus on the things that we absolutely can control. In the case of the current pandemic, we can control our prevention practices. For a list of recommended prevention practices from the CDC, click here. Also, be sure to engage in general good health practices. Drink plenty of water, eat a nutritious and well-balanced diet, exercise at moderate intensity for 30 minutes every day, get adequate sleep on a regular schedule, and practice social distancing. Click on the respective hyperlinks for more information.

Engage in the activities you love (responsibly)

A person going for a walk outside in nature.

At times like this, it is ever more important to continue to engage in the activities that bring us joy, as long as those activities don’t put us or others at increased risk of infection. Take a walk, read a good book, watch something funny on TV, sing, dance, spend time with your kids and pets, etc. These kinds of activities help us relax and process stress in a positive way, helping us to feel more secure and in control.

Connect

A person talking on the phone.

We are social beings and, as such, it is so important to not become completely isolated during this time. Isolation can have significant negative impacts on mental wellness. Social distancing does not have to mean complete and total social isolation – certainly not in this day and age. Continue to call the people you love. Check-in on people who are ill and quarantined (not in person). Start a virtual book club. Make use of Skype or Facetime to see people as you talk with them. Just make sure to connect with other humans as much as you can, because staying tethered to our humanity is what will get us through this.

Please share any other helpful tips you have for managing your mental health.

Tina Cumby, MSW, RSW
Tina Cumby, MSW, RSW

Tina Cumby, MSW, RSW, is an independent writer and creator of free content for mental health professionals. She has been employed as a social worker for four years and has another year of case management and policy development experience. She works primarily with adults living at the intersections of poverty, disability, and trauma at all levels of practice (micro, mezzo, and macro). Tina is particularly well versed in social work case management and student supervision.

4 thoughts on “How to manage your mental health during a pandemic”

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