This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
“I’m losing it a little,” says Tomas Aramburu, a 23-year-old biochemical researcher.
To be honest, lots of us are losing it a little. At best, people are stuck inside. At worst, they’re working in incredibly stressful conditions, or isolated from friends and family. This is not an easy time.
In the middle of this coronavirus pandemic, with all of us facing the possibility of perilous physical health, caring for our mental health is even more important. As Shainna Ali, a mental health counselor, educator and advocate in Orlando, Florida, said, “The surge in stress many are experiencing is absolutely normal and valid. We need to make a toolkit to cope with stress.”
Mental health professionals are trying to respond to increased demand by moving their services online, and using telehealth platforms to hold appointments.
When Misty Hook, a licensed clinical psychologist outside of Dallas, switched to telehealth, some of her clients weren’t able to make the switch with her because their insurance didn’t cover it. Hook is seeing some of these clients, “the ones that can’t wait for care,” pro bono.
And therapists are coming up with creative approaches, too.
Charles Jacob, a psychologist in Philadelphia, saw his last in-person client on March 16. After that, he rushed to convert a game room in his house into his office and is now, accompanied by a velvet Elvis painting, seeing patients through video chat.
It’s a rapidly changing situation, and one most practitioners weren’t prepared for.
“I think a lot of us in practice are building the airplane as we fly it, which is a bit dangerous,” said Jacob, referring to the world of telehealth. Laws around therapists listening across states didn’t anticipate a global pandemic.
So if you don’t have access to your usual mental health provider or you’ve never used one, there are lots of resources. The National Alliance on Mental Illness put together a list of emotional support lines, called warmlines, and also published a resource guide. WHYY’s Billy Penn lists some options for people in Philadelphia.
But if you want to start on your toolkit right now, there are some practices you can adopt today.
Tracy Davis Black, a licensed clinical social worker and trauma specialist in Asheville, North Carolina, offered a framework to think about this pandemic. She described it as collective grief, the loss of the stability we had before and the overwhelming changes many of us are seeing every day.
“I think it is our challenge right now to be present with our emotions, without trying to numb or distract from them,” she said.
“We often choose distractions because we aren’t aware of what we’re truly needing for ourselves,” said Keesha Sullivan, a psychotherapist in private practice in Tampa, Florida. She suggests that we prioritize self-care practices we know are good for us over possible distractions.
But don’t expect pandemic self-care to look like regular self-care. So many things about our lives are different, and Ali reminds us to evolve our self-care practices too.
“If going to the gym was a cornerstone of your self-care, could you adapt that practice in our current context by working out from home, streaming a fitness class, or going for a run?” she said.
If you’re looking for a beginner’s guide to self-care, Jace Harr, a mental health activist, created an interactive tool, called “You feel like S***: an interactive self-care guide,” that is both informative and delightful.
Little things like your gym closing, or big things like no child care or no job, can throw us out of orbit.
“Try your best to manage what you can and release what you cannot. Be kind to yourself as you sort and take this one day at a time,” Ali said.
Hook suggested focusing on the things you can still control. “A lot of people are understandably scared and frustrated right now. There’s a lot we can’t do. So it’s helpful to take control wherever we can. That’s why it’s important to keep to a schedule as much as possible, this includes having regular sleeping hours, exercising daily — outside whenever it’s an option because sunlight is good for you — and limiting news consumption.”
Although mainlining news may seem like a positive, most mental health experts seem to agree it isn’t.
“Set limits for yourself to get the information that you need to stay updated but that can prevent you from becoming overwhelmed,” said Ali.
Hook added, “I know people need to know what’s going on, but information overload, especially negative information, doesn’t lend itself to good mental health, so keep it reasonable.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness guide also suggests checking the sources of your information, and being accurately informed about your risk.
Even if you’ve done everything to take care of yourself, isolation may be a big part of your world right now.
“Social distancing doesn’t need to be isolation” said Ali. She suggested exploring other ways you can connect, like organizing a virtual gathering or playing a board game, if you live with other people. Hook also advised talking to family and friends.
“It’s my hope that we can be gentle with ourselves and each other, and recalibrate our expectations as [we] muddle through this together,” said Davis Black.
Hotlines for immediate assistance
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Nacional de Prevención del Suicidio: 1-888-628-9454
Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990
National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline: 1-800-950-6264
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
Greater Philadelphia Coronavirus Helpline: 1-800-722-7112
Crisis Text Line: Text “PA” to 741-741
New Jersey Poison center and coronavirus hotline: 1-800-962-1253
Delaware Public Health Coronavirus Call Center: 1-866-408-1899