Mental Health Support During COVID-19

Zoe Gray Young Women's Support Specialist & Qualified Yoga Instructor

Moves are being made to ease the current COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, but it won’t happen overnight. Social distancing rules are likely to stay in place until a vaccine is found, which might not be until late this year or early next. For people who are able to work effectively from home it’s likely they’ll be doing so for some time to come, and schools will most likely see a ‘phased return’ with certain year groups not returning until September. Not to mention older people and those deemed vulnerable by the government. We’ve been told to expect a ‘new normal’ rather than a return to our old lives. So with this in mind, and all of the uncertainty it brings, we turn to the impact of self-isolation on people’s mental health. Looking at the things you can control to support your emotional well-being and that of the people you love, through this time and beyond.

‘The science’

As a company rooted in scientific research, we welcome the renewed national interest in and focus on science. So, what is ‘the science’ telling us about the impact of the coronavirus on our mental health? Well, that it’s real and felt, and varies according to circumstance – the virus has not affected us all equally and this extends to our emotional well-being.

mental health

How we are impacted will depend on our situation. Our home environment and access to green space, the relationship we have with the people we live with and are close to, our health and their health, as well as our financial position - all of which might have been comprised by the disease. Inevitably any lived experience of mental ill-health has also shown to be a factor in how we adapt to the current situation.

Two surveys were carried out remarkably early in the lockdown – one on the general population and the other on those with pre-existing mental health conditions1. Many of the concerns reported in both surveys were anxiety-related – some generalised, others associated with issues such as ‘work, money, getting food, fear of the virus, loss, and keeping in touch.’ Unsurprisingly isolation also featured highly in both sets of responses. Many of the regulations put in place to keep us safe – social & physical distancing, stay at home orders – can also cause and exacerbate depression and anxiety, conditions that thrive on loneliness and a lack of social interaction. Interestingly, the ‘prospect of becoming physically unwell with COVID-19 ranked lower than these issues related to the social and psychological response to the pandemic2.’

What helps?

Both surveys also investigated what the respondents felt were aiding their mental health and well-being at that time. Responses fitted broadly into six categories: Staying connected, keeping busy, physical activity, staying calm, managing information (media) intake and maintaining routine. These speak to so many of the tips outlined in our recent self-care blog.

Aside from our mental health, our personalities and personal response to the crisis, as well as our age, will also shape our experience, sometimes with surprising outcomes.  

The paradox

Understandably the research tells us that those with lived experience of mental ill-health are worried about these conditions being made worse by the crisis3. Sadly for some this will have been the case, but there is anecdotal data emerging that says for others, their mental health has improved during this time. The survey data also shows that the well-being of the general population actually increased during April4. It’s plausible that those familiar with crisis have strategies to hand and are practiced at responding.  

If your home environment is safe, then a slowing down, a reduction in social pressure and more time to rest, means that for those with social anxiety this could be a period of respite from the overstimulation often associated with modern life. There remains a question mark of course over what happens when restrictions are eased but it makes sense that for introverts too, this time for some has felt freeing.

Gut feeling

The connection between the gut and the brain, sometimes referred to as the gut-brain axis (the gut-brain axis is explored in greater detail on our Learning Lab), has implications for our mental health. It is increasingly accepted that the health of our microbiome affects our mood. With this in mind, it is worth paying attention to our gut health through this crisis, when for most of us levels of stress are likely to be higher. As the microbiome is our area of expertise, we wanted to share a few pointers to help you keep yours in good shape.   

Tops tips for balancing the microbiome:

  • Eat a varied diet rich in fibre including fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Try to include prebiotic and fermented foods (head over to Learning Lab to explore more about prebiotics and fermented foods).
  • Drink alcohol and caffeine only in moderation.
  • Take a good quality and well-researched daily probiotic supplement.
  • Keep active, stay hydrated and take rest.

The importance of sleep

Speaking of taking rest, we wanted to touch briefly on the importance of sleep given ‘the association between sleep disturbance and mental health5’. Changes in sleeping patterns and lifestyle greatly influence our mental health and stress response6. At this stage there are a lot of people suffering from lockdown fatigue, but what impact is the lockdown having on our sleep?

Interestingly, many people have reported more vivid dreams, as well as more adverse effects including difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. The BBC reported that the hashtag ‘can’t sleep’ has been trending online and a study undertaken by the Institute for Employment Studies found that very nearly two thirds of respondents reported a loss of sleep due to worry7.

‘Sleep hygiene’ has become a bit of a buzz-phrase but put simply it just means the steps we can take at home to improve the quality of our sleep.

Top tips for better sleep:

  • Establish a daily routine with regular waking- and bed-times.
  • Try to get as much natural light in the mornings as possible – even orientating your workstation so that it faces a window will help. Even better if you can exercise outdoors.
  • Identify the things that you find calming and build these into your bedtime routine.
  • Keep your bedroom for sleep and put down phones, tablets and laptops an hour or so before bed. Ask yourself whether your bedroom could be a blue-light free zone!
  • Reducing your caffeine intake won’t just improve your sleep, it will reduce any anxiety too. 

Supporting children and young people

Whilst we know older people are more vulnerable to the disease, when we think about coronavirus’s impact on emotional well-being, our minds often turn to children and young people, with good reason. ChildLine, a child counselling service, experienced a significant rise in the number of calls to its helpline in response to the pandemic. The disruption to their lives is huge, especially those due to sit their GCSE and A Levels. This isn’t how they expected to spend the last few weeks and months of their time at school – stuck at home, away from their friends, and cut off from external sources of support. A study by the University of Sheffield and Ulster University has been launched to investigate the mental health impacts of coronavirus on young people, including why it might be harder for 13-24 year olds to adhere to social distancing8.

Underlining the scale of the issue, the NSPCC has dedicated an entire section of their website providing advice and support for parents and carers. It’s not easy but if you’re child is struggling with their mental health there are things you can do to help.   

Top tips for supporting children and young people through this crisis:  

  • Encourage them to talk to you or another trusted adult about their concerns – allow them to ask questions about the news, even if you don’t have all the answers.
  • Acknowledge how difficult it must be to be away from friends and school life – try not to minimise these feelings and let them know it’s a normal response to an abnormal situation.
  • Be mindful of your tone of voice and body language. When you are calm and relaxed it helps young people to regulate their emotions.
  • Show genuine care. You love and care about your child and this is the most important thing for them to experience and that you have to offer.
  • Get support for you – these issues are emotionally challenging.

Taking care of you

If you do have caring responsibilities, it’s additionally important to recognise that you can’t pour from an empty cup. But regardless of your situation taking care of yourself should be treated as a priority during this time. This will mean different things to different people but our recent self-care blog is a great place to start if you are looking for ideas or want to better understand what good self-care looks like.

woman on bed

And finally, this Good News Feed from HuffPost only posts good news, making it an enjoyable and uplifting read! Enjoy and stay safe everyone.

Where to turn for support

If you or someone you love is suffering with mental ill-health during this period there are organisations who can help. The NHS Every Mind Matters site provides expert advice and practical tips, including a page for those in need of urgent support.

Sadly, there are a lot of families grieving for loved ones right now. If that’ you or someone you know, Cruse offers support when someone dies.

Incidents of domestic violence and abuse have sadly also risen during this period. If you are suffering you can contact the 24-hr National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

And if you are worried about a child or young person you can take advice from the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000. 

References

1. Survey results: Understanding people’s concerns about the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

2. Multidisciplinary research priorities for the COVID-19 pandemic: a call for action for mental health science

3. Survey results: Understanding people’s concerns about the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

4. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2020/apr/stress-over-covid-19-keeping-fewer-people-night

5. Multidisciplinary research priorities for the COVID-19 pandemic: a call for action for mental health science

6. ibid

7. https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/resource/ies-working-home-wellbeing-survey

8. https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/psychologists-study-impact-coronavirus-lockdown-young-people-1.887102