The coronavirus pandemic has provided many challenges for mental health professionals as patients have faced long periods of isolation. However, the pandemic has also created a situation in which healthcare professionals can make changes for the better.
With the pandemic expected to continue well into 2021, people will continue to grapple with the impact of isolation, fear and anxiety brought on by social distancing and the economic problems caused by the virus.
As the future remains unpredictable, it’s helpful for both patients and mental health professionals to know what they face.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health
Beyond concerns about contracting the disease itself, the primary issue with the coronavirus is dealing with stress. That stress can lead to substantial and sometimes unpredictable emotional responses. But it’s also an opening for people to learn more about how to cope with stress. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes: “Coping with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.”
Unchecked stress can lead to many issues, according to the CDC. They include:
- Repeated thoughts that focus on fear and worry about your health, the health of loved ones, your financial situation and the loss of support services
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- A worsening of both physical and mental chronic health issues
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances
- Changes in eating patterns
These issues can especially impact seniors, who are in more danger of having severe outcomes if they become infected by the virus.
Healthcare workers also experience some of the most profound mental health issues around the coronavirus. The American Psychological Association (APA) has issued advice for healthcare workers in dealing with the stress of the pandemic and the resulting mental health issues. Psychologists also have increasingly offered their services to healthcare workers as they get through the crisis.
Mental Health Services Changed Sparked By the Pandemic
Some trends have emerged from the pandemic that could lead to improvements in mental healthcare services in the years to come. Some involve innovations in healthcare, and others a return to emphasizing the basics of mental health.
Increased Used of Telemedicine
An increasing number of people, especially seniors, have turned to telemedicine. The government reports that the number of people taking advantage of telemedicine, which involves conducting physician and mental health professional visits through video conferencing or phone calls, increased in both rural and urban areas as the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States.
This trend has worked on both the individual and group levels. While telemedicine is used by individual patients, mental health professionals and charity organizations have used platforms such as Zoom to connect people for virtual support meetings and community conversations.
Improved Community Outreach
In a paper published in The Lancet, an international group of clinicians, mental health experts and patients of mental health services pooled their thoughts and ideas on how mental health services can make improvements using lessons learned during the pandemic.
One of those issues included improved community outreach. For example, in the United States, mental health providers organized food delivery for vulnerable community members. They worked with community leaders to ensure that information about getting mental health counseling was included in the program.
Helping Healthcare Workers
The Lancet paper also reported that the pandemic provided mental health professionals the opportunity to develop strategies to provide the best ways to support healthcare workers. In China, psychological treatment services for healthcare workers went relatively unused. In the United Kingdom, healthcare workers used a national hotline for mental health issues but not in the numbers they used local solutions.
The most success was found with having mental health counselors available for healthcare workers locally, as well as rest and recharge rooms away from the main areas of the hospital. Counselors also taught healthcare workers to watch each other for signs of mental health issues, which is also being practiced with mental healthcare workers who are watching out for each other.
An Emphasis on Self-Care
Many people simply do not practice good self-care, which can have damaging effects during a crisis such as the pandemic. As the APA list for healthcare workers explained, people can go a long way toward maintaining and even improving mental health by remembering some of the following tips:
- Maintain good eating habits. Try to maintain a healthy diet and avoid too much alcohol, processed food and sugar.
- Practice breathing. Stopping everything and taking a moment to relax and breathe can help keep your mind calm.
- Exercise. Walking, running and other aerobic exercises can help you maintain a good mental outlook
- Connect with others. Even the strongest person can start to have issues if isolated for too long. Take every opportunity to connect with others through Zoom, FaceTime or whatever other means you have at your disposal.
The pandemic has taken its toll, but some good things might come out of it in the area of mental health. For those who wish to enter the profession, understanding the lessons learned during this unprecedented time will prove key to practicing mental health counseling in the future.