AARPColumnists

Reimagine Everything: COVID-19 Demands Attention to Mental Health, Too

By April 24, 2020 May 11th, 2020 No Comments

Erwin Tan, M.D.

It’s completely normal to feel sadness, anxiety and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Common signs of distress include feelings of hopelessness or fear, changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns, difficulty concentrating and physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach problems. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, and some people may eventually develop symptoms of depression or even clinical depression.

Evidence has already emerged that COVID-19 can affect your psychological well-being. In addition, people who thought they were more at risk for contracting COVID-19, including people with chronic illness, reported higher depression and stress levels.

Notably, lower depression and stress levels were associated with taking the preventive action of washing hands after coughing, sneezing or touching potentially contaminated surfaces.

Elizabeth A. Carter, Ph.D.

Even in a world without COVID-19, depression is more common and severe in both older adults, especially those 70 and older, and those living below the federal poverty level. Because COVID-19 and related economic concerns have the potential to greatly affect these vulnerable populations during the pandemic, public health efforts must pay special attention to addressing this issue.

Many Asian Americans have difficulty accessing mental health services because of the negative stigma that many Asian American communities have toward mental health issues.

Taking care of your emotional health during the COVID-19 pandemic will help you plan clearly and protect yourself and your family. Here are some actions that can help ease depressive symptoms:

Limit News Consumption and Stick With Trusted Information. Research suggests having the right amount of timely and reliable information is key for managing depressive symptoms. Accepting some level of uncertainty about the situation and only visiting trusted news sources can help.

Connect Across Social Distance. While crucial to our health, social distancing can exacerbate depression and anxiety. Reach out to friends and loved ones that may be lonely or isolated. Call frequently and schedule video chats if available. Try out AARP’s new website, AARP Community Connections (www.aarpcommunityconnections.org). By providing some contact information, people can receive a friendly check-in call from an AARP volunteer.

If you’re not sure what activities are allowed while social distancing, experts have advice on how to weigh the risks and benefits of certain daily activities. AARP has also compiled seven ways to engage in meaningful activities with your loved ones.

Exercise Regularly. Exercise is one of the most effective nondrug treatments for depression.

Practice Mindfulness and Meditation. Practicing deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation can all help calm anxiety. Many websites and apps offer guided sessions. Try free apps such as Calm; Breethe; UCLA Mindful; and Mindfulness Coach, from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Help Within Reach. Finally, if you or someone you know is unable to engage in normal daily activities and needs additional help, there are a number of additional possible resources available.

In an Emergency. If you or someone you know is in danger of hurting themselves or others, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. The Lifeline provides free and confidential support and crisis resources. Both numbers are available 24/7, 365 days a year.

Other resources include both those coming directly out of the current crisis and excellent resources already in place:

Expanded Telehealth. On March 17, in a temporary measure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Medicare expanded its telehealth services and relaxed some restrictions to make accessing these services, including mental health counseling, easier for beneficiaries. Many private insurance plans offer therapy via telehealth as well, so contact your insurance company or check their website to learn more about their resources.

State Public Health Departments. Some states are making access to mental health services a priority. Check your state health department to see what it might offer. Websites are likely to be regularly updated in light of the current crisis.

Helplines. If you’re in need, several services are available 24/7, 365 days per year. Here are some examples:

  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: Call (800) 662-HELP (4357). This is a free and confidential treatment referral and information service for individuals and families.
  • National Institute of Mental Health Crisis text hotline: Text “HELLO” to 741741. This text line serves anyone, in any type of crisis, connecting him/her with a crisis counselor who can provide support and information.
  • Veterans Crisis Line: Call (800) 273-8255 and press ‘1’ or text 828255. Those with hearing loss can call (800) 799-4889. The service is available to all veterans, even if they are not registered with the VA or enrolled in VA healthcare.
  • Disaster Distress Helpline: Call (800) 985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746. This free, confidential and multilingual helpline provides immediate crisis counseling.

United in Challenging Times

Hopefully, these options and resources

illustrate how none of us is alone; we are all navigating through this pandemic together.

Daily updates on how to avoid the spread of COVID-19 can be found online at aarp.org/coronavirus. You can also find COVID-19 information on the AARP Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Erwin Tan, M.D., is a director at AARP Thought Leadership.

Elizabeth A. Carter is a senior health services research adviser at the AARP Public Policy Institute.