In response to the coronavirus, the guidance we are hearing the most concerns social distancing. It is of the utmost importance to help slow this deadly virus by all possible means. If limiting crowds and multiple human interactions helps do that, we must. But we must also look at the ways social distancing will influence those with mental illness, especially given that spring is when suicides spike. In order to avoid a mental health crisis, we must start building different kinds of social safety nets for ourselves and each other before news and economic stresses become worse.
Most people battling depression already feel isolated. Remember to check on those you know struggle, and if you’re feeling even more anxious about possible isolation, tell a friend, family member, or counselor. Now is the time to build community, even as we must forgo gathering in public spaces. Start to plan Google Hangouts or Facebook chats. As physical contact decreases, remember how warm the sound of a human voice is, so dare to use the phone again, or Skype.
Remember that people who previously adhered to rigid work schedules might now be dealing with unstructured time, which can feed depression and negative thoughts. Everyone will have to adjust to being at least somewhat homebound, but if you battle mental illness, start thinking about how to create schedules for yourself to get you out of bed and shower. Give yourself tasks to accomplish every day. Give yourself rewards. With no external motivation or boundaries, it could all feel hopeless. Remember that people are out there counting on you, and that you can count on others.
However, we must be careful not to conflate productivity with good mental health. It will be very tough for everyone to focus on work for the next few weeks as more developments happen. Everyone goes stir crazy to some extent when cooped up in one place. Keeping your mind active on other things will help protect you against the barrage of 24/7 media. Limit the number of open computer windows to create a boundary between you and the onslaught of information, especially the information that hasn’t been filtered yet through rigorous fact checking.
It’s important to stay informed, but if you are prone to depression and anxiety, the way we interpret that data could be very detrimental to our mental health. I struggle with this minute by minute. My in-person classes were canceled yesterday. So, I no longer have students nor an office full of professional colleagues to discuss these issues with. If we are no longer around people who can act as a sounding board, then we must be diligent about how much we expose ourselves to an endless feed of information.
It’s important to assure people that they are not alone when we talk about social distancing. Remember, not everyone has a family or significant other. Not everyone has a close-knit circle of friends. Even if they do, in times of crisis, people dealing with severe anxiety, depression, or mania might not be in a place to reach out. On the flip side, we often forget to check in with those who appear strong and high functioning. Create a list of people to check on every week or every other day or whatever time frame you decide upon. Create another list for people to reach out to if you find yourself struggling. I can’t stress enough how we need to create deeper community bonds now as more events and gatherings get canceled.
We know that touch can boost our immunity and calm pain, but right now guidelines are encouraging people to temporarily suspend this. What will take its place? How are we going above and beyond to show others that they matter, especially if sick and alone? Again, we must practice safe protocols in order not to spread the coronavirus, but we will soon have a mental illness crisis if we don’t also bring out more resources and conversation to help us through this period of self-imposed isolation.