Taking Care of Your Mental Health During a Pandemic

by Emma Harrigan
Director of Policy Analysis and Development
COVID-19 has challenged us as individuals and as a system of care in so many ways. As the pandemic wears on, it is prompting more anxiety and depression. Many people are using alcohol or other substances as a response to COVID-19 stress, and the effects are amplified for communities of color and essential workers. Meanwhile, people have had to adapt to new ways of supporting their recovery in a world that requires social distancing. 
The good news is there are resources and coping mechanisms to help everyone through these challenges.
What is the scope of the mental health issue as it relates to COVID-19? 
The Kaiser Family Foundation released an issue brief in early February highlighting the impacts of the pandemic on mental health—more Americans are experiencing anxiety or depression in response to the pandemic.
  • During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.
  • KFF Health Tracking Poll from July 2020 also found that many adults are reporting specific negative impacts on their mental health and well-being, such as difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%), due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. 
  • The pandemic has disproportionately affected the health of communities of color. Black adults (48%) and Hispanic or Latino adults (46%) are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder than White adults (41%). Historically, these communities of color have faced challenges accessing mental health care.
  • Essential workers continue to face many challenges. including greater risk of contracting the Coronavirus than other workers. Compared to nonessential workers, essential workers are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder (42% vs. 30%), starting or increasing substance use (25% vs. 11%), and suicidal thoughts (22% vs. 8%) during the pandemic.”
What can I do to take care of myself and my family?
Even in normal, non-pandemic times, we all benefit from learning to manage our stress more effectively.  COVID Support VT, funded by the Vermont Department of Mental Health and FEMA, is a local resource with tools, education, and connections to help better manage stress and anxiety.  
Take some time and try out the strategies COVID Support has put together on their website. Make a plan to do this each and every day. Establishing a routine of self-care helps create consistency in an inconsistent and scary time. Take time each day to relax, unwind, or engage in hobbies that you enjoy. Keep connections with people you trust and value.  
Sometimes we aggressively manage our routines, our eating and our exercise to give ourselves a sense of control. Instead, take care of yourself by eating well, moving your body, resting, and being careful not to overuse alcohol or drugs. Set reasonable goals for accomplishing tasks.  Please be kind to yourself!
Ground yourself with facts from reliable sources. The Health Department has important resources on the state of COVID-19 in Vermont, prevention practices and up-to-date guidelines on gatherings and travel. Take regular breaks from news or social media to think about things other than COVID-19.
Sometimes we all need a little extra help but it can be hard to ask or know who to reach out to. COVID Support VT has made it easy to see your options all in one place. Talk with a trusted friend, family member, or faith leader who can help. Reach out to your healthcare provider if your stress or coping strategies get in the way of your daily activities. There are also resources with your local Designated Agency, the Vermont Peer Support line, the Vermont Department of Health and VT 211.  
What can I do to take care of my patients, coworkers, and colleagues?
I think we can all agree that COVID-19 is reshaping the way we think about ourselves and our work. As we cross 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States, many of us have lost loved ones. Many of us haven’t seen our family and friends in-person or worry about older relatives and their safety. Many of us worry about the effects of social distancing on our children. Many of us are anxious about what the world will look like “on the other side.” COVID-19 is a traumatic event that has global impact.
Trauma results from the experience or threat of harm, both physical and emotional, that has lasting impact on our functioning and our well-being. Trauma can be in response to environmental situations—such as accidents, natural disaster, terrorism, or global pandemics. Realize the widespread impact of COVID-19. Trauma is everywhere.
When faced with the unexpected, the unknown, or something that is overwhelming, people may react differently than usual. People who have survived trauma can develop coping strategies that are designed to survive but are ineffective for daily interactions. Think about the ways COVID-19 has changed the way you or your colleagues think, behave or interact. These changes are important for surviving the pandemic, but are these changes healthy in the long term?
Be patient with yourself—and with others—while we are all healing. Work to provide a safe and supportive environment. There is so much outside our control right now as the world works to combat COVID-19. Recognize what you can control and work to reduce surprises for colleagues. Be trustworthy and transparent. Respond to agitation and frustration in non-judgmental and supportive ways. 
Work to reduce operations, practices or cultures that create stressful or toxic environments.  COVID Support VT offers customized workshops to support staff with navigating stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. There are also resources with SAMHSA, the Department of Mental Health and your local community Designated Agencies that can help you develop a trauma-informed workplace.