The Covid pandemic feels as though it has equalised our collective mental health. Or if not equalised, then it has certainly ‘flattened’ the mental health curve.
Most people who live with a mental illness have at some point experienced unpleasant times with no fixed end point, over which they have little control. And now the rest of the world is being forced to experience this too.
I imagine everyone’s mental experience of this pandemic differs based on their mental health history (among other factors). But it’s fair to say that right now most, if not all, of us are experiencing some form of mental discomfort.
On the surface, those who live with mental illness appear to be most vulnerable to this. But, this demographic may not be as at risk as we think.
As someone who lives with a severe mental illness but is currently relatively asymptomatic, I feel surprisingly resilient…for now.
Having previously lived through the rock-solid horror of psychosis, the inevitable Covid anxiety that flits through my brain now feels relatively easy to manage. I have an arsenal of finely honed tools to combat it. All that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and individual sessions with my psychologist are coming in handy.
I am also familiar with having my freedom restricted at times. When I am on fifteen-minute observations in hospital, I can’t go outside. At my sickest I have been too unwell for visitors. It doesn’t mean I like it, but I have at least previously encountered similar conditions to the ones I am living with now.
But what about everyone else?
Many people had been living with mild to moderate undiagnosed or poorly managed anxiety and/or depression for several months or years before Covid hit. I am particularly concerned for this group.
They don’t have solid medical and social support systems in place yet. The all-encompassing Covid generated stress is the perfect trigger for worsening symptoms. And accessing good mental health care quickly and efficiently may become even harder than it usually is.
Depression and anxiety symptoms can make the sufferer feel isolated even if they are closely surrounded by loved ones. Social distancing – so essential to manage virus transmission – will exacerbate symptoms of mental ill health in this group.
Then there are the people who have never lived with mental ill health.
They may never have experienced racing thoughts, heart palpitations, chest pain, irritability, distractibility, gastrointestinal signs such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea due to anxiety, a low mood, insomnia, incessant worry, or any other mental and physical symptoms that can arise due to stress and/or mental ill health.
These people may not know why they are experiencing symptoms or have the psychological skills to put them in perspective. So, they will suffer more than they need to.
But there is good news in the quagmire of black headlines we are sucked into daily.
We can use our own mental health histories to help ourselves and others in this crisis.
If you live with mental illness and are currently symptomatic, your sole focus must be to do what you can to get well. I know from my experience I am of no help to anyone if I am symptomatic. It’s a cliché but one that applies here:
‘Put your own oxygen mask on before you help anyone else with theirs’.
Firstly, contact the medical professionals you would usually consult when you are symptomatic – whether that’s your psychiatrist, psychologist, GP, community health workers, or psychiatric hospital.
Limit your exposure to the news to once a day – if that. If you have family or friends who can reliably update you on the essential news only, do that. Immersing yourself in the details, is of no practical value, and it can make you feel worse.
Use the same tools you would usually use to distract yourself when you are living through an episode of illness. Eat regularly and well. Don’t consume alcohol or recreational drugs. And move your body in some way, even if it’s small, every single day.
If you live with mental illness and are currently asymptomatic be vigilant but not obsessed. Just because this time is stressful, doesn’t mean developing an episode of illness is inevitable.
Your oxygen mask will consist of continuing to take medication (if you take it), keeping your regular appointments with your psychologist, psychiatrist or GP where possible, eating regularly and well, exercising most days, avoiding or minimising alcohol consumption, and practising whatever psychological skills (for example Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) that you have learnt over the course of your illness.
Be aware of any news developments that have practical ramifications for you, but don’t marinate in the news. Once you have done all this and whatever else you need to stay well – consider this:
You can offer support to those who are struggling mentally, those who have never experienced symptoms of mental ill health. Reassurance that their symptoms are survivable with the right care, could mean a lot to someone who is new to these issues.
That said – only do this if you have the mental energy to spare – otherwise just look after yourself.
To those who sense they may have been living with anxiety or depression for a while and it is worsening: All the suggestions with regards to eating well and exercise apply. Don’t self-medicate with alcohol or other recreational drugs. It will make things worse. Getting the right help is also crucial.
I am acutely aware that accessing good mental health care is a challenge in this country even when we are not mid crisis, but some excellent online resources to start with are: Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and SANE (Links at the bottom of this post)
To all the people who have never lived with mental illness: Distraction, exercise, eating well, and maintaining social connections via technology are a good start. Don’t self medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs. If you are still experiencing symptoms related to anxiety or depression (as listed above) then the online resources at the bottom of this post may be useful, or make an appointment with your GP as a starting point.
And one more thing…
Once you have done what you need to help yourself – take stock of how this situation is making you feel. And then imagine feeling like this for much longer periods of time than this pandemic will last.
Imagine feeling like this but the pandemic didn’t exist and people around you made you feel as though your symptoms weren’t real.
Then translate your feelings into compassion. And when you feel like yourself again (and you will), extend some sympathy and support to those whose mental illness lasts a lifetime.
And to everyone: We can use our individual experiences of mental health and ill health to support each other through this strange new world and into a kinder future.
So look at who you are sharing your living space with at the moment and consider starting a conversation about where on the spectrum of mental health and illness you and your housemates or family sit. Then think about how you could help each other psychologically.
My own household is one of extremes (regarding the adults). I live with severe mental illness, currently asymptomatic. My husband has never experienced mental illness.
So, when he expressed frustration a couple of days ago about his attention span feeling like that of a gold fish, I said:
‘Yes, I know it sucks feeling like that. But it will be ok.’
And I gave him a hug – something which I believe (at the time of writing) is still acceptable and safe to do in a household in which no one is symptomatic or has returned a positive Covid test.
This post is based only on my own experience and anecdotal evidence.
For professional mental health advice please contact your psychiatrist, GP, or for more mental health and ill health information check out the following links, all three of which are currently set up to deal with questions about Covid related mental health issues:
Beyond Blue https://www.beyondblue.org.au/
You may also like to check out these other Thought Food posts:
When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results
Mental Illness Doesn’t Respect Deadlines
What a mental illness can teach you about your mental health
Psychiatric Medication And Stigma