By Shannon Bouchard
In a pandemic, health is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. We are afraid of catching the virus, worried about our loved ones being infected, and concerned that as COVID-19 patients overwhelm healthcare facilities, people facing other serious illnesses will be left behind. But what about mental health conditions? There have been quite a few articles and social media posts offering tips and tricks for managing mental health during the pandemic. It is clear that this crisis is difficult for everyone, from anxiety and fear about the virus to stress about finances and feelings of depression as we are forced to isolate ourselves. But something that is not receiving enough attention is the impact this crisis is having on people with pre-existing mental health conditions. As common coping mechanisms like seeing friends are taken away and ordinary activities like grocery shopping become more difficult, there is a significant risk of mental health conditions worsening for those currently battling them, and returning for those who have struggled in the past.
Anxiety is something we are all feeling right now. Fear has become commonplace, as we give other people on the street a wide berth and get questioned by security guards at grocery store entrances. You may have trouble falling asleep, as your mind turns over and over every frightening thing you’ve heard over the course of the day. Consider this—people who have an anxiety disorder experience this every day, often to a very intense degree. They live with constant fear that can easily bubble to the surface in the form of panic attacks. To make matters worse, panic attacks can mimic the respiratory symptoms that are the calling card of COVID-19, which can then reinforce fears that one has caught the virus. In an NBC news article about OCD and anxiety during coronavirus, Christina Maxwell, a counselor at the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago, stated that “uncertainty is the basis of all anxiety disorders, so in some ways, COVID-19 has set a fire to the foundation of anxiety.”
The current public health crisis presents particular problems for people with OCD. People who have spent years trying to control and lessen maladaptive behaviours like constant hand washing are now being told that it is the best way to keep them and their families safe. People who rely on constant access to hand sanitizer and cleaning products to help them feel safe might now have trouble finding them in stores due to hoarding.
Eating disorders can also be particularly exacerbated by the current situation. Grocery stores can be very threatening places for people with eating disorders, and they are currently even scarier than usual. There are security guards at entrances and long line-ups, and trying to shop while keeping two metres apart from everyone else in cramped aisles is a stressful undertaking. Most grocery stores are now forcing people to shop alone, meaning that people with eating disorders are deprived of the support they may need to do their shopping safely. Carefully curated meal plans can quickly go out the window due to chronic shortages of staples like eggs and flour. Activities like going to the gym are no longer an option, which can result in fear of weight gain and maladaptive measures being taken to compensate, such as purging.
One of the cornerstones of mental healthcare, therapy, is now only available online. People’s routines are being upended, leaving many with too much time on their hands. Coupled with elevated stress, this is a recipe for falling back into maladaptive behaviours such as bingeing, substance abuse, self-harm etc. People who are struggling, particularly those who live alone, are less likely to be noticed because work, school and gatherings of family and friends are no longer taking place. And for those struggling badly enough that hospitalization may be needed, there is no guarantee that the overtaxed healthcare system will have room for them, or that they will be safe from catching COVID-19 while trying to recuperate.
Several governments have posted information about mental health during COVID-19 as well as resources for those in difficulty. Here are a few:
There have been a lot of media posts about tips for managing mental health during the pandemic. While these tips, like maintaining a routine and going for walks, may be useful for some, these suggestions might just make people with pre-existing mental health conditions feel guilty that these supposedly simple solutions aren’t working for them. That being said, here are a few tips specifically aimed at people with pre-existing mental health conditions, with full acknowledgement that they may not be enough:
One tip that is often heard in articles and on government websites is limiting the consumption of news about the virus. This can be very difficult to do, given how ubiquitous the topic is across social media, but it is even more difficult for people like translators, whose work currently almost entirely involves the translation of documentation and communication about coronavirus. Companies in general, and particularly companies whose work involves COVID-19 in some way, should be aware of the virus’s potential impact on their employees’ mental health, and be flexible where possible.
Here is a useful article about ways CEOs and managers can help their employees during this stressful time:
One of the most difficult things about the current crisis has been the social isolation. Humans are social by nature, and we are used to seeing coworkers every day, visiting friends and family, and celebrating holidays and birthdays together. In a World Economic Forum article about mental health and coronavirus, Sandro Galea, dean at the Boston University of Public Health, stated that “the fact that social isolation is associated with poor mental health is unquestionable.” With that in mind, OXO’s social committee has been finding ways to ensure that we stay connected despite the fact that we are all working from home.
Do you miss the days when you could run into a coworker at the water cooler and have a quick chat before getting back to work? Well, OXO’s social committee has set up a virtual water cooler on Google Meet that is available throughout the work day for people to take a little break and chat with their colleagues.
OXO’s social committee is setting up Lunch and Learn events where people can learn a new skill from their colleagues. Whether it’s a mini-course on Excel or the delights of mixology, these events are a great way to socialize while having lunch!
OXO is a great supporter of fika, the Swedish concept of taking a break to have some coffee and a snack with colleagues. We have been using it as a way to celebrate birthdays, arrivals and departures, particularly now that birthdays might otherwise be spent alone.
If you are truly struggling with your mental health, contact a mental health professional. Stay safe, and remember—this crisis won’t last forever!