Do you feel stressed by the ongoing pandemic? Are you worried about getting sick? Or are you worried about your children? We asked some of HMRI’s mental health researchers how to cope with COVID and the Omicron wave.
Faced with home life challenges, increased job demands, temporary unemployment, decreased food supplies, housing shortages and general financial stress, it’s hardly surprising that the latest COVID-19 outbreak is affecting our mental health and wellbeing.
The understandable worry can make us fearful of the future. We can feel isolated and become insular which is, one of the greatest risks to our mental well-being. Our regular routines get disrupted can make us feel we have lost control. We have a high incidence of anxiety and depression, as well as alcohol and other substance usage, which has increased through the pandemic. Statistics are also emerging about increased rates of domestic and family violence. One of our greatest challenges, as a community, is to stay connected and be as generous and kind to each other as we can. This philosophy will best enable recovery after the pandemic. This is made even more difficult if you are in isolation with the virus.
Our team has put together some other suggestions if you, or someone you know, is feeling anxious or overwhelmed, along with a range of COVID-19 factsheets to help individuals support themselves and their loved ones through the pandemic.
Some authors have argued much of what we label as ‘reality’ is influenced and made-up of our upbringing, peer groups, education, and many other factors. Of course, we don’t want to minimise or counter the indisputable situation caused by COVID-19. However, there is research to suggest how we view a situation is as important as the situation itself. If we approach a challenge by acknowledging the challenge, but also holding a belief in something positive, our world view or, what is referred to as capacity for ‘perspective taking’ is increased. As is our own sense of control and well-being.
Perspective taking is important. We can all feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of a situation over which we have very little control. This lack of control impacts our ability to plan and, long-term, can be quite de-stabilising to our world view. Research tells us when confronted with large-scale events, such as COVID-19, the situation can be perceived as being too vast or external for us to influence. This can impact our capacity for empathy with others.
One of the impacts of the pandemic is the widening social and economic gap between people. Our team talk about the ‘parable of the toilet paper’. When confronted with such uncertainty, we can turn inward and, understandably, worry about our own livelihood. If we see the last pack of toilet paper on the shelf, we might instinctively grab it even if we don’t really need it.
Again, research shows the value of community, friends, and family in helping us feel less isolated. This has been tough, particularly over the recent Christmas period. Cultivating empathy, compassion and kindness not only improves life for others but has been shown to improve our own well-being. Try to connect every day with someone – even if it feels like hard work.
So, think about leaving that toilet paper for someone who might need it more than you. The act of kindness will feel better than a cupboard full of toilet paper ever will.
We live in world laden with information. Some would say too much information. This has increased exponentially since the outbreak of the pandemic, almost two years ago. It can be exhausting, after such a long period, to read ‘bad news stories.’ Take some time to consider what information is helpful to your understanding and mood, as opposed to making you more worried and anxious. Choose reputable sources and avoid engaging in negative social media debate, much of which is driven by opinion and not likely to be a measured discussion. It can be helpful to limit or even turn-off social media for periods.
Routine and self-care also have been shown to improve mental health outcomes. Ironically, for many of us the pandemic has disrupted our routine through being unwell, working from home, job uncertainty, home schooling and, significantly, the disruption of important symbolic events, such as birthdays, weddings and even funerals. For others, social, sporting and community participation have been disrupted. Our emotional outlook is improved when we feel in control of some aspects of our lives. Be realistic and kind to yourself. Start with an achievable pattern of behaviour you can reasonably control, such as regular dinner time, online exercise, reading or calling a friend or family member. It doesn’t matter what it is; it matters that it is regular and something you enjoy.
None of us like feeling vulnerable. The uncertainty surrounding emerging variants and continued life disruption can be anything from irritating to overwhelming, even with good social supports, a solid routine, judicious absorption of news and social media, and a strong sense of empathy and community engagement. Not only is it okay to feel this way, but it is also positive for our mental health to acknowledge these feelings and to seek help. It is also important we check-in on each other, particularly if we know someone feeling very down and at risk.
Detailed guidelines for helping people who are thinking about suicide can be accessed online.
The Australian Government has also provided specific mental health support for COVID-19 related distress that can be accessed 24/7.
If you are experiencing difficulties with mental health and substance use, consider visiting the eCliPSE site (https://eclipse.org.au/about-eclipse), that aims to facilitate free 24/7 access to evidence-based online screening and eHealth treatments.
A free, confidential, professionally moderated, online community has recently been established for friends and family members who have someone close to them experiencing alcohol or other drug usage issues. It can be accessed through https://breathingspace.community/ and the complementary program at https://ffsp.com.au/
Meet the researchers behind this article
The LoginLab team works as part of the Centre for Brain and Mental Health Research at the University of Newcastle and HMRI. Our team has a wide range of expertise in Psychology, Social Work, Nutrition and Dietetics and has conducted and completed many projects and trials in these areas.
Prof Frances Kay-Lambkin is a Psychologist and leads an international team of researchers, clinicians and industry partners in the innovative development and translation of evidence-based treatments for comorbid mental and physical disorders.
Dara Sampson is an accredited Social Worker and has worked extensively with people who are marginalised and socially excluded. Dara is passionate about the importance of people’s stories and language and how language can extend or challenge social constructions, particularly as they relate to mental health and stigma.
Dr Milena Heinsch is an accredited Social Worker whose work explores the dense and intricate relationships, systems, values and processes required to enact sustainable improvements through research.
Hannah Wells is a qualified Social Worker with experience in a range of settings including mental health and substance use intervention, inpatient medical and rehabilitation, family support, community development and program evaluation