How Coronavirus is affecting mental health and substance abuse

COVID-19 is taking a particularly hard toll on those struggling with mental health conditions like anxiety, OCD, and substance abuse. Here’s what the experts say can help you cope or care for loved ones who could be affected.

Social distancing, shelter-in-place orders, restaurant closures—the world we currently live in has become a very strange and turbulent place. Coronavirus has transformed everything we thought we knew about our daily lives, our government, and our health into a kind of bizarro world where FaceTime dating and panic-buying toilet paper are the new norm. It’s taking a toll on even the most optimistic of us as we try to stay positive amidst what feels like bleaker and bleaker news each day. Now, imagine how this already unsettling situation feels for the over 45 million Americans with mental illness.

Those suffering from anxiety, depression, PTS, substance abuse, and other forms of chronic mental illness are some of the most vulnerable right now in terms of loneliness, isolation, and potential for self-destructive behavior due to a lack of consistent support and a disrupted routine.

In an effort to help those with mental illness (and their friends and loved ones who may be concerned about the impacts COVID-19 may be having on them), we spoke to the experts on the specific challenges those with the most common conditions face, as well as what actions they can practice and networks they can access to remain healthy and safe.

What Are The Dangers For Those With Chronic Mental Illness?

If reading those stats made you feel nervous or scared, multiply that by 1000 and you’ll begin to understand how this situation feels to those suffering from mood and personality disorders. The effects of this crisis are more far-reaching than heightened anxiety, which pretty much everyone is feeling. There are also trickle-down effects to those with addiction and behavioral disorders like OCD, ADHD, and substance abuse. Along with the good that social distancing can do for our own health and society in general, it also increases feelings of isolation, loneliness, stress, and fear—all of which can be triggers that make many mental illnesses infinitely worse.

How Coronavirus Affects The Most Common Mental Illnesses

According to our experts, there are specific concerns and challenges with the coronavirus pandemic for each of the nine most common mental health conditions. While some overlap, many are a bit more specific. With that in mind, we asked our panel to detail the need-to-know info for each, including the biggest challenges, what you can do to manage, and where to find help.

Anxiety and Coronavirus

While there are many specific types of anxiety, one of the most common is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (a.k.a. GAD), which affects more than 6 million Americans. While it is normal to worry, those diagnosed with GAD have difficulty controlling worry on more days than not for a period of over six months and have three or more common symptoms: having a persistent sense of impending doom or danger, being irritable and on-edge, rapid breathing, constant trembling, feeling weak or tired, having difficulty concentrating or trouble sleeping, and having an increased heart rate.

For these people, the COVID-19 pandemic may create an elevated fear of catching or dying from the virus. Anxiety sufferers are prone to catastrophizing, which can result in behaviors like panic buying or trying different medications and treatments in an effort to “cure” or prevent coronavirus. (For the record, WHO and the CDC both state that there is currently no known cure or proven medication for COVID-19.) They can also fall victim to compulsively checking the news, scrolling and scrolling for something more definitive that just won’t come.

On the positive side, those who have been in treatment for an anxiety disorder might actually be better prepared for the current situation as they already have some coping mechanisms in place to deal with their day-to-day fears. But, for some, this could also be a tipping point that makes them paralyzed by that fear.

Which is why our experts stress that one of the most important things those with anxiety must do right now is to recognize that there is no such thing as having no fear. At some point or another, we all will be afraid of something. How we respond to that fear is what will determine how we get through this crisis.

Coping Tips For Anxiety

One coping strategy to try is what some psychiatrists call “being with your fear.” It involves identifying what is currently causing your fear in a particular moment, then acknowledging that you and your body are currently safe. Practice deep breathing and ground yourself in that breathing. Mental health and mindfulness apps like Headspace can be great places to get guided meditation tips and techniques.

It’s also crucial to stay virtually connected, be that with your doctor, or friends and family. We are social creatures by nature, and it’s been shown that social support buffers stress and anxiety. Try designating at least one phone call a day to a completely non-coronavirus related conversation, focusing instead on positive questions and stories.

And, limit your media diet to avoid going down the rabbit hole of bad news. Allow yourself to check in once in the morning and once before dinner, setting a timer for 15-20-minutes, and logging off when that alarm goes off.

Look for positive stories, not just coronavirus updates. Many people may find that watching the news can cause them to be more anxious — if you fall in that category, stick to reading it. And, don’t rely on social media to get your “facts.” It’s important to trust in the healthcare experts that are monitoring and working around the clock on controlling this pandemic, not your mom’s best friend’s neighbor who saw this thing that might protect you from infection. Sorry Karen, but we’re going to trust the CDC over that meme in your Facebook feed.

Resources for Anxiety

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope, there are plenty of resources available. Many doctors and mental health providers are setting up virtual practices to help their patients keep up with their treatment. You can also check out the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for videos, treatment options, and up-to-date information and programs that can help. In addition to talking to your doctor and loved ones, experts also recommend joining a virtual support group around things like knitting or baking or another hobby or topic you enjoy. These can be a form of positive distraction, which is a key coping mechanism for those with anxiety.

Depression and COVID-19
While we all have bouts of sadness from time to time, for the 17.7 million people diagnosed with clinical depression, that grief and sadness is constant and comes with other symptoms like exhaustion, trouble sleeping, a shrinking appetite and/or overeating, sudden crying spells, and sometimes thoughts of suicide.

Just as with anxiety, the fear and isolation can be very dangerous for those with depression, because without an outside influence to remind them of the good, they may instead focus solely on the bad news and develop a skewed sense of the situation, and potentially not be able to pull themselves out of that spiral. Depression sufferers may have a growing sense of hopelessness or be paralyzed by their fear, leading them to neglect themselves and their health. Loneliness and fear can also be triggers for suicidal thoughts.

Coping Tips For Depression
Which is why the two most important steps for those with depression right now are to focus on connection and self-care. It’s critically important, our experts say, to reach out to your social connections to remind yourself you are not alone.

And, while it may seem silly when you’re stuck indoors and not seeing anyone, having a daily routine of self-care can help ensure you don’t fall victim to your worst impulses. Get up, take a shower, get dressed, work out, cook your meals, make daily virtual “dates” with the people you love—your mind may be telling you to stay in bed and not do anything, but this will only make things worse.

Another coping skill is what our experts call “fake it to make it.” Basically, read or watch or do something that is the opposite of how you are feeling. Don’t turn on that ultra-sad movie because you are feeling down, put on something funny and lighthearted instead. Focus on positive topics and distract yourself from that fear and sadness and loneliness.

Resources For Depression
If you find yourself struggling, be sure to notify your psychiatrist or other mental healthcare provider and try and schedule sessions. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Talk to someone, anyone in your network if you are seriously struggling—social connection can help alleviate some of that loneliness or fear that may be causing you to think irrationally or to follow unsafe impulses. Some local lawmakers are also calling for mental health professionals to offer free mental health sessions over the phone or online to help anyone who might be struggling right now. Go to the National Alliance On Mental Illness to search for free support and education programs in your area.

Substance Abuse Disorder and COVID-19
An all-too-common disorder that affects a wide spectrum of age, race, and socio-economic groups, substance abuse disorder is a disease that affects the brain and behavioral patterns, causing a person to be unable to control their use of addictive substances like alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, and prescription medication. Many people with a substance abuse problem also suffer from another form of mental illness—over 9 million adults, according to the most recent data from NAMI.

The big concern for those in treatment for substance abuse is the risk of relapse. Many of those in treatment for substance abuse rely on daily meetings or support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. As our experts note, while addiction is treatable, no one can recover alone. With isolation and lockdowns in place, many people aren’t able to get the support they need to help battle their urges.

For those that are struggling, find someone immediately to be a recovery mentor. This could be a sponsor, a recovery coach, or a therapist. Connect with them as much as you can or as much as you think you need to, but be sure you are talking about what substance abuse experts call the four major points of connection each time:

Everything that’s going on, everything that you are feeling, everything that you are thinking, and everything that you are doing in that moment. If you find yourself having increased cravings, you need to talk to someone—a friend, a loved one, anyone you feel comfortable opening up to — even if that means calling a new person every 10 minutes. Whatever you can safely do to avoid the isolation that could lead to a relapse.

Additionally, substance abuse experts recommend giving yourself daily “talks” to remind yourself what succumbing to your cravings will result in. Talk to yourself about everything good that will happen if you don’t addict and everything bad that will happen if you do. Ask what is triggering the craving and what you can do to help soothe and distract yourself.

Things like regular exercise, reading a good book, playing a video game, and picking up a new hobby can all be helpful distractions.

Groups like In The Rooms, Self-Management and Recovery Training, and Alcoholics Anonymous all provide helpful programs and online support groups to assist those with substance abuse issues and help them navigate their addiction remotely.

For many of us, this strange new world we’re living in due to COVID-19 can feel like some sort of alternate reality. For those suffering from schizophrenia, it creates a very dangerous situation, as their perception of reality can already be warped. People who have schizophrenia and are able to successfully function in their community most likely are able to do so through medication, a regular routine, and an array of support that could include physicians, caseworkers, and peer groups.

With COVID-19, all of this has been disrupted and they are now in a place of isolation that could make them a danger to themselves. If you are someone already prone to see the world through a paranoid lens, you may believe the misinformation about coronavirus that is circulating, or even be seeking it out to help make the news fit your version of reality.

And maintaining your regular medication is crucial, so be sure to stay on top of your prescription refills and don’t wait to the last minute to get them filled.

What Can You Do To Help A Loved One With Mental Illness Now?
If you know someone with a mental illness, now is the time to step up and make sure you are helping them in whatever way you can. Reach out—be it via video, phone, text, or social media—to check in and be an active part of their support group. Many people believe that when dealing with a loved one who has a mental illness that they need to be able to come up with a solution to their problem. That can make us fearful about saying the wrong thing or not being able to provide helpful advice and “fix” them. Instead, reach out with the intention of letting them know that you are there and wanting to know how they are. Tell them you’ve been thinking about them and genuinely ask how they are doing. Remember, says our doctor panel, that the simple act of connecting with another human being can be life-saving.

Article by: Megan McIntyre
Reviewed by: Farah Fazel, Psy.S.,

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