It’s widely agreed that social distancing is absolutely essential to minimizing the spread of coronavirus. This is why state governments have taken the unprecedented measures of closing schools, restaurants, and all non-essential businesses until the virus is under control.
While these precautions may be protecting our physical health, they’re likely having the opposite effect on our mental health.
The Connection Between Disaster and Mental Health
Research proves that large-scale disasters, such as mass shootings and hurricanes, are consistently accompanied by increases in depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and a range of other serious problems. In fact, 5% of the residents affected by Hurricane Ike in 2008 met the criteria for major depressive disorder, as did 1 in 10 adults in New York City after the 9/11 attacks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created trauma, fear, and uncertainty, just like past large-scale disasters, making it clear that this pandemic will have a significant impact on our nation’s mental health and wellness.
The Immediate Impact of Social Distancing
Before the coronavirus turned our society on its head, we enjoyed a culture of closeness. Americans gathered with friends at restaurants and coffee shops, worked closely with colleagues, attended religious institutions, brought their children to the playground, and traveled the nation for concerts, conferences, and vacations.
Children enjoyed the enrichment of their school environments with dozens of friends and role models nearby, and nursing home residents benefited from the company of volunteers and family visitors.
Now social distancing has changed all of that. Without the familiar contact and connection with others, Americans are at much higher risk of these mental health problems:
- Difficulty sleeping and concentrating
- Substance use
- Domestic violence
- Child abuse
A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 45% of adults in the U.S reported negative impacts to their mental health due to the coronavirus. The combined impacts of quarantine, job loss, financial strain, and isolation can take their toll.
The Best Ways to Protect and Improve Mental Health From Afar
Fortunately, we live in a time when mental health is receiving more attention as a vital component of overall wellness. By working together and looking after one another, even from afar, we can combat the mental health consequences of social distancing and help each other through these uncertain times.
Experts recommend these steps to best protect mental health as we fight COVID-19:
- Use digital technologies to bridge social distancing
- Conduct online activities with gyms, places of worship, and other normal places of congregation
- Connect with colleagues on virtual video workspaces
- Reach out to those who are most marginalized or isolated (i.e. the elderly)
- Implement routines for children, including continuity of learning
- Build and use mechanisms for reporting and intervention of domestic violence and child abuse
- Communities train groups to provide psychological first aid
- Increase use of telemedicine mental health visits
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique threat to mental health, but with strategic action it doesn’t have to remain an invisible victim.