by Curlan Campbell, NOW Grenada
- Keep “physical distancing” but maintain social connections
- Socialising is an essential human need and can be done without violating protocol
- Psychological impacts on populations include anxiety and heightened levels of stress
Director of Masters in Clinical-Community Psychology Programme at St George’s University (SGU), Arlette Herry PhD, advises to keep “physical distancing” but maintain social connections. The health psychologist’s advice mirrors that of the World Health Organisation (WHO) as mental health and psychological resilience is placed high on the agenda during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic forced many countries to declared states of emergency or curfews, confining people to their homes. Psychological impacts on populations during this period include anxiety and heightened levels of stress particularly for the senior population experiencing dementia. This situation especially puts people with a prior history of mental illness at a greater risk of relapse since these people may already be exposed to being socially isolated.
Dr Herry said, “Isolation removes access to your support network. If you feel that you are experiencing this event alone and have no support, it can affect the way that you cope. This goes not just for the mentally ill but for everyone. Older adults are especially at risk if they live alone. Again, the onus is on all of us to prevent that. Families can call to reach out but also neighbours can do their part by just calling out from across the yard for a chat.”
Dr Herry outlined how this crisis can adversely affect mentally ill patients and provided ways to mitigate.
- A social support network to ensure that they are being compliant and taking their medication.
This can be immediate family members in the house or a friend or neighbour calling to check on them and reminding them to take their medicine. Family members need to more aware of any changes and call a physician or the ministry for help.
- Provision of psychological/psychiatric support services.
The public should be made aware of the number to call if a family member or any citizen is experiencing difficulties due to mental illness.
- Obviously, community health workers are not going out into the community. However, they should reach out to their clients or their families to check on their status.
Sometimes all it takes is hearing a familiar, friendly voice on the line to put a mind at ease.
The health psychologist says the impact of the crisis on people’s mental health should be taken very seriously. She offered some advice for people with an underlying history of mental illness to ensure that their condition remains stable and also provided steps that a person with mental illness must take if their condition is becoming unstable.
“First, try not to be socially disconnected. Reach out to family and friends by phone. Create a routine. For example, call every morning and night just to check-in. Second, maintain (or in some cases, start) physical activity. For example, weed the flower beds, jump rope, scrub the steps, walk around the yard. We are so fortunate to be living in a place where we have bright sunshine and fresh, unpolluted air. However, if they feel that symptoms are worsening, please reach out the local medical centres or the Ministry of Health,” she said.
Dr Herry said precautions to protect their mental health during this crisis should be a priority for everyone. She maintains that despite the advice by the authorities to maintain social distancing protocol, socialising is an essential human need and can be done without violating the protocol. “Physical distancing is a more appropriate term because we do want people to keep physical distance but maintain social connections. In fact, the WHO is currently reassessing the use of the term, and has already started using “physical distancing” in its place. The adverse effects of social isolation are the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day; it can shorten your life span, exacerbate chronic conditions, and affect mental health. As such, we want people to keep their social connections.”
In maintaining social connections during this crisis, Dr Herry said technology can be used to offset the lack of physical interaction. “We live in a time when technology provides different avenues to do so – WhatsApp phone and video; Face Time; Skype; Zoom; and the good old landline. Reach out to friends, family, colleagues. Talk about your experiences, reminisce about your childhood days, exchange recipes, share future plans.”
The WHO – Department of Mental Health and Substance Use has developed guidelines for the various sectors of the population that can be followed to help ease the anxiety caused by the Covid-19 pandemic especially for people in isolation.
Among the many recommendations listed in the document for people in isolation are:
- Stay connected and maintain your social networks
- Try as much as possible to keep your daily routines or create new routines if circumstances change
- If health authorities have recommended limiting your physical social contact to contain the outbreak, you can stay connected via telephone, email, social media or video conference
- During times of stress, pay attention to your own needs and feelings
- Engage in healthy activities that you enjoy and find relaxing
- Exercise regularly, keep regular sleep routines and eat healthy food
- Keep things in perspective. Public health agencies and experts in all countries are working on the outbreak to ensure the availability of the best care to those affected
- A near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel anxious or distressed
- Seek information updates and practical guidance at specific times during the day from health professionals and WHO website and avoid listening to or following rumours that make you feel uncomfortable.