While most of the focus for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is on preventing its spread and reducing the physical toll it takes, there’s a mental health side too.
Dr. Anita DeLongis, a UBC health psychologist, has seen it before while studying people’s psychological reactions during emerging pandemics like SARS, West Nile Virus and H1N1.
Now, she is collaborating with colleague Dr. Nancy Sim to explore how people are responding to COVID-19. The situation, DeLongis says, is affecting people in many ways already, whether it’s uncertainty around working from home or the prospects of unemployment, the changes that come from social isolation or the additional challenges faced by people with pre-existing mental health conditions. This is all in addition to worry over health concerns.
“For all of us, we need to feel in control of this situation,” DeLongis says. “It’s a basic human need, and it’s challenged right now, for all of us.”
People need to ask, she says, how they can feel some control over their situation and whether they are taking part in irrational behaviours that are not helping the community.
“Some of the hoarding, for example, is all about people’s efforts to feel in control,” she says.
The purpose of the study she and Sim are conducting is to gauge people’s responses – for example, why some people respond to recommended health behaviours like hand-washing, while others do not. The objective of it is to identify the psychological and social factors that promote better coping and adjustment during the crisis.
During social isolation, she says, it is important to find creative ways to stay in touch and socialize by using the online tools at our fingertips, whether it’s planning “happy hours”on Skype with friends or scheduling ways for kids to socialize or play games with their friends online. She says teleconferencing as an option should be available for people needing to get in touch with their therapists.
It’s important to stay informed with what’s going on, she urges, but she also stresses the need for taking a break to understand things are going to be different for everyone for the immediate future
“Their routines are disrupted, they’re going to need a new routine,” she says, whether this means planning for work, leisure or prevention measures around the house. “All of us are going to have to be creative about how to have social contact while being socially distanced.”
In her past research of pandemics, she’s found other interesting correlations, such as increases in births, marriages and divorces – all indicators of how some cope or don’t cope.
The key factor to look for is empathy, especially when it comes to worrying about one’s health or stress-inducing pocketbook issues.
“I think these are issues we’re all struggling with,” she says.
From her previous work, DeLongis has found people do cope and maintain empathy for the situations of others.
“In all of those cases we found that when people were able to develop more empathy towards others, they actually engaged in more health behaviours that were helpful to themselves, like they did more hand-washing, they did more of what the Centers for Disease Control recommended,” she says. “They did less of the micro-aggressions, the shaming and blaming, all hoarding type behaviours.”
In public health terms, the key, she adds, is providing the right amount of information for the public to take a crisis seriously but not so much as to spread panic.
“As long as the empathy increases with it, you don’t see the damaging behaviours that public health people want to avoid,” she says.
For the current study, DeLongis wants to spread the word to get people to take part online and help the researchers keep track of how we are dealing with the situation over time. Her previous studies she said were more “snapshots,” rather than longer-term looks.
Taking part in it is as easy to going to the web link, and she would especially like to hear from households to compare how people under the same roof are responding.
“We want to follow people over time,” she says. “They just need to click on the response that’s appropriate for them.”
To find out more or to take part in the online UBC study, go to https://blogs.ubc.ca/coronavirus/
Local online drop-in help
In the Comox Valley, registered clinical counsellor Amy Kelly told the Record she wanted to find a way to show appreciation for the work of health care providers during the pandemic.
She has set up a free drop-in support group for front-line workers Mondays at 5 p.m. via Zoom.
“I just wanted to share my way of lighting a candle versus cursing the darkness,” she said via email.
For others, she is planning a free group via Zoom Tuesdays at 1 p.m. starting March 31. Anyone who wants an invitation and consent form should contact Kelly at email@example.com
More help for mental health
A Vancouver-based counselling practice, Peak Resilience, has created a complete COVID-19 Mental Health Guide aimed at residents.
The guide is to serve as a resource to maintain mental health and promote mental of people around them during the pandemic.
“Mental health is just as important as physical health when it comes to responding to COVID-19. Increased isolation, uncertainty over the future, and fear for the health and safety of ourselves and others can lead to feelings of anxiety and hopelessness,” says a statement from Peak Resilience.
The guide includes tips such as:
•Recognize that fear and uncertainty are normal and these feelings make sense.
• Remember that ‘panic sells and calm saves’ – be careful about what information you consume.
•Focus on taking small, concrete steps every day to prepare and educate yourself.
Peak Resilience is also offering virtual counselling services via phone or video. For more information, phone 604-682-PEAK (7325).