COVID-19 Demands Attention to Mental Health, Too
By Beth Carter, Erwin Tan, March 30, 2020 10:28 AM
In the face of the outbreak, AARP is providing information and resources to help older people and those caring for them protect themselves from the virus and prevent it from spreading to others. You can find AARP's coronavirus resources at www.aarp.org/coronavirus.
It’s completely normal to feel sadness, anxiety, and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Common signs of distress include feelings of hopelessness or fear, changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns, difficulty concentrating, and physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach problems. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations and some people may eventually develop symptoms of depression or even clinical depression.
Evidence has already emerged that COVID-19 can affect your psychological well-being. Over half of those living in quarantine during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in China rated the psychological impact of COVID-19 as moderate to severe, while only one-quarter reported minimal psychological impact. In addition, people who thought they were more at risk for contracting COVID-19, including people with chronic illness, reported higher depression and stress levels. Notably, lower depression and stress levels were associated with taking the preventive action of washing hands after coughing, sneezing, or touching potentially contaminated surfaces.
Even in a world without COVID-19, depression is more common and more severe in both older adults, especially those 70 and older, and those living below the federal poverty level. Because COVID-19 and related economic concerns have the potential to greatly affect these vulnerable populations during the pandemic, public health efforts must pay special attention to addressing this issue.
Taking care of your emotional health during the COVID-19 pandemic will help you plan clearly and protect yourself and your family. Here are some actions that can help ease depressive symptoms during this stressful time:
Limit news consumption and stick with trusted information. Research suggests having the right amount of timely and reliable information is key for managing depressive symptoms. Obsessively watching the news may increase stress levels and worsen depressive symptoms. Accepting some level of uncertainty about the situation and only visiting trusted news sources can help.
Daily updates on how to avoid the spread of COVID-19 can be found at aarp.org/coronavirus and aarp.org/elcoronavirus (in Spanish). You can also find COVID-19 information on the AARP Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.
Connect across social distance. While crucial to our health, social distancing can exacerbate depression and anxiety. Reach out to friends and loved ones that may be lonely or isolated. Call frequently and schedule video chats if available. Try out AARP’s new website, AARP Community Connections. By providing some contact information, people can receive a friendly check-in call from an AARP volunteer.
If you’re not sure what activities are allowed while social distancing, experts have advice on how to weigh the risks and benefits of certain daily activities. AARP has also compiled 7 ways to engage in meaningful activities with your loved ones.
Exercise regularly. Exercise is one of the most effective non-drug treatments for depression. Go for a walk, get on a yoga mat, do some weight-bearing exercises, or try an AARP exercise video.
Practice mindfulness and meditation. Practicing deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation can all help calm anxiety and negative thought. Many websites and apps offer guided sessions. Try free apps such as Calm; Breethe; UCLA Mindful; and Mindfulness Coach, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Help within Reach
Finally, if you or someone you know is unable to engage in normal daily activities and needs additional help, you have a number of additional possible resources available.
In an emergency. If you or someone you know is in danger of hurting themselves or others, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline provides free and confidential support and crisis resources. Both numbers are available 24/7, 365 days a year.
Other resources include both those coming directly out of the current crisis and excellent resources already in place:
Expanded telehealth. On March 17, in a temporary measure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Medicare expanded its telehealth services and relaxed some restrictions to make accessing these services, including mental health counseling, easier for beneficiaries. Many private insurance plans offer therapy via telehealth as well, so contact your insurance company or check their website to learn more about their resources.
State public health departments. Some states are making access to mental health services a priority. Governor Cuomo of New York, for example, is creating a volunteer network of mental health professionals to offer assistance to those experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression due to COVID-19. Check your state health department to see what they might offer. Their websites are likely to be regularly updated in light of the current crisis.
Helplines. If you’re in need, several services are available 24/7, 365 days per year. Here are some examples:
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- A free and confidential treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
- National Institute of Mental Health Crisis text hotline: Text “HELLO” to 741741
- This text line serves anyone, in any type of crisis, connecting them with a crisis counselor who can provide support and information.
- Veterans Crisis Line: Call 1-800-273-8255 and press ‘1’ or text 828255. Those with hearing loss can call 1-800-799-4889
- A free, confidential resource that connects veterans with a trained responder. The service is available to all veterans, even if they are not registered with the VA or enrolled in VA healthcare.
- Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746
- This free, confidential, and multilingual helpline provides immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster.
United in Challenging Times
Hopefully these options and resources themselves illustrate how none of us is alone; we are all navigating through this pandemic together. And just as we can wash our hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there are actions we can take to care for our own mental well-being. In fact, taking the action itself will likely prove healing.