Supporting a Loved One's Mental Health During COVID-19

COVID-19 has impacted everyday life at an unprecedented level. While some are grieving the loss of a loved one, others are struggling to survive with the loss of their income. Many are affected by restricted mobility, extended isolation, and disruptions to daily activities.

And these are taking a severe toll on mental health. Whether it’s the trauma of dealing with death or the fears of contracting the virus, the pandemic-led events are triggering a heightened level of emotional distress among a large part of the population.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 40% of respondents have reported an adverse mental or behavioral condition due to COVID-19. These included anxiety, depression, trauma, substance use, as well as suicide ideation. That’s a two-fold rise in mental health conditions compared to the pre-COVID times.

The WHO has already issued guidance for countries to ensure mental health services are integrated into their COVID-19 response and recovery plans.

Needless to say, we are now facing a debilitating mental health challenge that could pervade millions with severe social and economic consequences if left unaddressed.

Who is most vulnerable to experience pandemic-led mental health conditions?

Everyone risks experiencing mental distress during a pandemic of this magnitude. However, there are certain segments in society that could be at a higher risk.

Those directly affected by pandemic-related trauma such as the death of a loved one or the loss of income could experience increased levels of anguish, stress, and anxiety.

Moreover, children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable and so are the elderly as they face heightened isolation and worries of accessing healthcare. Individuals already suffering from a mental health disorder as well as frontline professionals fighting against the pandemic, such as healthcare workers, are also at high risk.

How can you support a loved one’s mental health during COVID-19?

If you suspect that someone close to you is particularly in distress, there are several steps you can take to support them.

1. Encourage conversations

One of the major challenges for individuals experiencing a mental health condition is voicing their concerns. There is still a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding mental health that’s preventing open lines of communication. It could also be an overwhelming and confusing experience for many people, which could prevent them from reaching out and seeking support.

Therefore, creating opportunities to have conversations is an important first step towards recovery. But remember, you need not offer solutions or advice. Spend more time listening instead and acknowledge their worries and concerns. Create a supportive environment for them to feel heard, but avoid pressuring them to talk. Make it clear that you’re there to listen whenever they’re ready to have a conversation.

And if they are living away from you, ensure that you check in regularly and remain alert for any signs of distress. Visit them if possible, or use video calls and messaging to maintain regular contact.

2. Educate yourself

Lack of knowledge is a common cause of ignorance and social stigma that are preventing mental health from coming into the forefront of conversations.

Educating yourself can help you break your own assumptions, misunderstandings, and stigma surrounding mental health conditions. It will better equip you to support those in need by identifying early warning signs, treatment programs, and available resources. 

And most importantly, expanding your knowledge on this important health topic can enable you to educate others. 

3. Manage your expectations

As you extend your support to a loved one experiencing mental distress, it’s important to manage your expectations to ensure their best interests.

Much similar to physical illnesses, mental health disorders will have varying effects on individuals. Therefore, not everyone will respond the same way to support and treatments. For example, they may not be willing to voice their concerns or feel ready to access help.

So, avoid placing undue pressure on them to act or respond. If you are feeling overly concerned or protective, be particularly mindful of your reactions, tone of voice, and behaviors. Adapt your approach based on each circumstance. Sometimes, silently sitting together or going for a walk with them could be just as comforting.

4. Help them maintain a healthy lifestyle

According to research, there is a clear link between lifestyle factors and mental health outcomes. And establishing a healthy lifestyle is especially important during a pandemic, when stress, frustration, and anxiety levels hover high.

Developing a routine, maintaining a healthy diet, adopting a regular sleep pattern, and avoiding alcohol can have a tremendous impact on someone experiencing mental distress. Studies show that even regular exercise, yoga, and meditation can all have significant positive effects on mental health. Social interactions, may it be in person or even virtually, could have similar benefits.

Moreover, limit exposure to negative or distressing media reports and avoid activities such as playing video games or watching movies for a prolonged time in isolation.

5. Support their treatment plans

Accessing professional mental health support for the first time could be a deeply overwhelming experience for many people. And your presence and assistance could be vital to help them successfully take that first step.

You can help them find the right resources, make appointments, and even accompany them. And with the pandemic-led mobility restrictions, various remote teletherapy services are also available now to overcome disruptions to in-person services.

Regular follow-ups can help ensure that they stay the course of the treatment program. You can also help them restock on prescribed medication and even connect them with support groups.

6. Make mental health part of the conversation

Encouraging a dialog on mental health at home, work, and in the community is essential for several reasons. It can help create awareness, break the stigma, and encourage others to elevate the conversation. It can also help rally support and create an inclusive environment so that those experiencing mental distress are encouraged to come forward and seek help.

And do not allow restricted mobility to keep you from creating a voice. Use social networks and online communities to draw attention to this important health topic.

7. Seek support

While you support your loved one to overcome their mental distress, it’s equally important to be mindful of your own mental health. Caring for someone experiencing a mental health condition could be particularly straining, especially when you are untrained.

Therefore, it’s essential that you actively seek support from others to avoid elevated stress and burnout. Ensure that responsibilities are shared and that your daily routine is uninterrupted as much as possible. Set boundaries and make your mental health a priority.

We’re undoubtedly experiencing a testing time for humanity. Some are affected more than others. And not everyone will endure the same. As human fragility and strength are challenged, we all need to rally together and support each other to come out on top at the end of this global catastrophe that has already taken many lives. And preserving our mental health is paramount if we are to achieve this. So, start with your own and those closest to you, and don’t hesitate to reach out for support.