Coronavirus and mental health: How to cope with stress and fear during quarantine

As the executive medical director for behavioral health at UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial, my job is to provide you with advice, expertise and tips to reduce stress and care for your mental health during this time of increased anxiety. I hope that with this guidance you can more easily cope with mental health struggles during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and find help, if needed, through local and national resources.

Is the COVID-19 pandemic a risk factor for heightened depression and anxiety?

A pandemic of this magnitude has caused disruptions in and adjustments to everyone’s lives that can cause significant anxiety and stress. People who are already experiencing conditions related to anxiety are also having to manage their conditions and adapt during this time.

Why is COVID-19 stressful?

A unique feature of the coronavirus is that a lot is unknown about it. The illness itself has an unknown treatment or cure. We’re also hearing conflicting messages about what should be done to manage the virus from a population health standpoint. When people are receiving mixed messages and they’re not sure how to proceed, that can create an overwhelming amount of anxiety.

What is the mental impact of social distancing?

Social distancing is new for nearly everyone. I think we need to be looking to astronauts and submariners who have been in confined spaces for long periods of time. Initially, time at home can be seen as a vacation, but that mentality is not going to last. Being isolated causes a need to create your own internal structure for work, school or meals, and to best utilize your time to keep you stimulated and healthy.

How can someone reduce stress during the coronavirus pandemic?

Creating a structure for your day is very important. When overwhelming circumstances are seen as a whole, they continue to be stressful. When broken down into pieces, those pieces can be managed and people can make their way through the day and accomplish goals. Within that structure it’s important to include activities that you enjoy. It’s different for everyone, and we may need to adopt new behaviors or hobbies in this unusual situation.

Are there online therapy or remote resources you would recommend to help cope with anxiety related to COVID-19?

Yes, and the adaptation of health care organizations to online care has been very quick. At UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial, we offer outpatient, intensive outpatient and inpatient behavioral health treatment. There are also national companies offering telehealth and online therapy options. Finding a therapist may likely not be as hard you may think. However, using a therapist should only be a single part of a comprehensive mental health program. Along with exercise, regular sleep patterns (which are at risk of changing in a time like this), appropriate socially distant contact with others, and other self care tactics, therapy can be very useful.

Learn about Ingalls Memorial Mental Health Care services, or call 708-915-6411 for a no-cost, confidential assessment by a trained mental health professional available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

National Mental Health Resources:

 

What tips would you give those with pre-existing mental health conditions?

I would suggest similar tips for the general public, but whether someone with a pre-existing condition could follow those suggestions depends on the severity of their symptoms. People who suffer from chronic mental illness who are already involved in a treatment program should reach out to their providers to stay on track or increase monitoring. Visits with a therapist might look different —they’re online and shorter than normal — but just knowing that treatment is still available can be comforting.

For people who are not already receiving care, behavioral health services at UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial are all still available. I’m hoping the stigma against mental health with be eroded in this crisis. Having such an overwhelming stress effect the entire population should help people understand what it’s like to experience a personal mental health crisis. Virtual, online therapy and telehealth (phone) treatment is available, and I appeal to you to reach out if you need mental health care.

Learn about Ingalls Memorial Mental Health Care services, or call 708-915-6411 for a no-cost, confidential assessment by a trained mental health professional available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

What is the potential impact on children and teens who are now doing online schooling?

First is the change in structure. Depending on the child’s ability to adhere to a structure inside the home, they could do better or worse than at school. Also, children and teens have to adjust to new interpersonal roles with parents who may be working from home and teaching.

How can those suffering from addiction get through the coronavirus pandemic?

The potential impact to people suffering from addiction during the pandemic is great. The change in structure alone — structure is what many people in active recovery use to keep themselves sober — could impact relapse risk. Initially there was difficulty accessing 12-Step groups, but now many of those programs can be found online (see resources below). For many in addiction, one of the reasons they used was their drug of choice was soothing. Craving may be very high in this stressful and overwhelming time. I suggest that people who are in treatment programs with specialty providers of addiction medicine reach out proactively to discuss options to combat increased cravings. There will be increased incidents of dependence to substances after this pandemic. If you find yourself in this category or have questions, please reach out to organized resources for assessment and evaluation (see resources below).

Learn about Ingalls Memorial Mental Health Care services, or call 708-915-6411 for a no-cost, confidential assessment by a trained mental health professional available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

National Mental Health Resources:

Joseph Beck, MD

Joseph Beck, MD

Psychiatrist Joseph Beck, MD, is executive medical director for behavioral health at UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Hospital.

See Dr. Beck's physician profile