Coronavirus Stress Can Trigger Those With Mental Illness

Caregivers must stay calm, maintain routines/boundaries, and reduce conflict.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

Photo by Dimitri Karastelev on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Dimitri Karastelev on Unsplash

The Coronavirus pandemic is first-and-foremost a public health crisis, but it is also straining the mental health of individuals all over the world. People are fearful, anxious, even panicking, including those who already have serious mental health conditions, from depression and anxiety disorders to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

All the while, social distancing measures are forcing legal courts to close or operate with limited functionality. Mental health professionals are counseling patients by phone instead of in-person. And medical providers and facilities are conserving manpower and resources for those stricken with COVID-19 or experiencing other emergencies. In short, there is much less help to go around.

Of course, mental illness is oblivious to such realities. It continues to disrupt the lives of affected individuals and their families—even as they struggle to acclimate to the changes wrought by the pandemic. My office continues to get calls from families desperate for assistance and advice, expressing grave concerns for loved ones.

Considering stress is a well-known trigger for such individuals, often spurring mental health crises, it’s incredibly important for the families and caregivers who often live with them to be exceedingly thoughtful and patient during this highly challenging time, even as calls for social distancing and self-quarantines severely limit opportunities for respite.

Fortunately, there are steps that can help protect the mental health of struggling loved ones. These include:

  • Stay calm despite distressing news and stressful circumstances.
  • Maintain routines, which provide needed structure and comfort.
  • Observe spatial boundaries, taking advantage of warmer weather while practicing social distancing.
  • Reduce conflict, keeping a check on your emotions and reactions.

It’s very possible that despite families’ best efforts, many people will experience mental health crises as a result of the pandemic and the precautions it requires. This necessitates that families remain vigilant, watch for red flags and signs of decompensation, and know when to seek help. Already government and institutions are coming up with innovative ways to best support these individuals and their families. For example, on March 16th, New York State announced it was streamlining the formal approval process for clinicians looking to provide therapy remotely to individuals with mental health issues.

The reality is that families might have no choice but to seek hospitalization for struggling loved ones if they become psychotic or suicidal. Given the current burden on hospitals and staff, reducing the likelihood of such hospitalizations is imperative, just as social distancing to “flatten the curve” is critical, in order to prevent our health care system from becoming overtaxed.

This crisis is an opportunity for all of us to strive to be our best selves and take care of the most vulnerable people in our communities. This includes those with serious mental illness. They need their families and caregivers to best shield them from unnecessary stress and anxiety. It will be a significant challenge, but one that we must all live up to.