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mind yourself

'We're all in this together': How to look after your wellbeing and those around you during the coronavirus outbreak

The HSE and WHO have issued mental health guidelines to help people manage the outbreak.

LAST UPDATE | 16 Mar 2020

OVER THE PAST few weeks, the news and public discussion has been dominated by the Covid-19 coronavirus. 

The government in Ireland has now advised all pubs across the State to close their doors for a fortnight to ensure people can follow the social distancing guidelines announced last week. 

The closure of schools, colleges and childcare facilities will continue until 29 March – and perhaps beyond. The government has also urged employers to allow staff to work from home, where possible. 

These measures – and the misinformation being shared on social media and in private messaging groups – have resulted in increased concern and stress for many people in recent days. 

The HSE and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued advice to people on how to look after their mental health during this time. 

“The spread of the coronavirus is a new and challenging event. Some people might find it more worrying than others. Try to remember that medical, scientific and public health experts are working hard to contain the virus,” the HSE said. 

“Most people’s lives will change in some way over a period of days, weeks it months. but in time, it will pass.”

The HSE said people may notice some of the following:

  • increased anxiety;
  • feeling stressed;
  • finding yourself excessively checking for symptoms, in yourself, or others;
  • becoming irritable more easily;
  • feeling insecure or unsettled;
  • fearing that normal aches and pains might be the virus;
  • having trouble sleeping;
  • feeling helpless or a lack of control;
  • having irrational thoughts.

News and social media

To mind your mental health during this time, it is recommended that you keep a realistic perspective of the situation based on facts. 

Stay informed, but set limits for news and social media as the constant stream of updates can cause you to feel worried. 

  • Use trustworthy and reliable sources to get your news.
  • Too much time on social media may increase levels of anxiety – consider limiting how much time you spend on it. 
  • If you find the coverage on coronavirus is too intense for you, talk to someone close to you about it, or seek professional support if needed.

Speaking to, psychotherapist Stella O’Malley reiterated the point of stepping away from social media and the news if it is causing anxiety. 

O’Malley said people who are feeling anxious could practice deep breathing exercises, yoga or go for walks to help ease their nerves. 

In its mental health guidelines, the World Health Organization has also noted the anxiety that those who have Covid-19 may have.

It is asking the public not to refer to people with the disease as ‘Covid-19 cases’, ‘victims’, ‘Covid-19 families’ or the ‘diseased’. 

“They are ‘people who have Covid-19′, ‘people who are being treated for Covid-19′, ‘people who are recovering from Covid-19′, and after recovering their life will go on with their jobs, families and loved ones,” WHO said. 

Healthy routines

It is likely that your normal routine will be affected significantly by the coronavirus outbreak. But it is best to keep some structure in your day. 

Pay attention to your needs and feelings, especially during times of stress. You may still be able to do some of the things you enjoy and find relaxing, maybe just in a different way now. 

The HSE suggests you can:

Stella O’Malley said people who are in isolation or working from home should try to keep a structure to their day. 

“You’d be better off structuring your day and putting in a schedule and actually planning each day what you’re going to do, rather than just allowing the days to unfold,” O’Malley told 

“Give yourself tasks. You are allowed to walk. The point is you’re self-isolating from people but you can talk to people on screens and you can go out in the air and such,” she said. 

Stay connected

Friends and family can be a good source of support during times of stress and worry and it’s important to keep in touch with them. 

If you’re advised to limit your social contact to contain the virus, try to stay connected in other ways such as email, social media, video calls or phone calls. 

Remember that talking things through with someone can help lessen that worry you feel – you don’t have to appear to be strong or try to cope with things by yourself. 

Talking to children

The HSE said involving your children in your plans to manage the situation is important – try to consider how they might be feeling.

“Give children and young people the time and space to talk about the outbreak. Share the facts with them in a way that suits their age and temperament, without causing alarm. 

Talking to your children about coronavirus but try to limit their exposure to news and social media. This is especially important for older children who may be spending g more time online now. It may be causing anxiety.

Play therapist Myriam Clancy told that children have started talking about the coronavirus in therapy sessions. 

“With children, it helps to give them very concrete information, tell them that it’s something people are talking about which seems scary but generally it’s not children who are getting it, it affects very old people or those who are already very sick,” she said.

“If they’re still distressed after that information, it’s about allowing them to feel that way. And having a conversation where you tell them you’ve noticed they’re really worried even though it’s not likely to affect a young person and you can see they still feel it’s scary,” Clancy said. 

Clancy said it may also help children if they are told of ways of protecting themselves, so they can feel more in control of the situation.

“So you can tell them that scientists have said the best way to prevent any illnesses is to wash your hands and maybe you could make up a song together about washing hands,” she suggested.  

If you’ve had these discussions with the child and you find they’re becoming almost obsessive with the anxiety around this, there could be something deeper there.

“Allow them to express the anxiety, don’t shut it down, but if it continues to be a big issue you should speak to your GP.” 

Healthcare workers

While the general population may be feeling a sense of anxiety as a result of the news and social media, it’s important to bear in mind that healthcare workers may, too, feel stressed as the outbreak worsens. 

This is something that WHO has taken note of in its mental health guidelines: 

Stress and the feelings associated with it are by no means a reflection that you cannot do your job or that you are weak. Managing your stress and psychosocial wellbeing during this time is as important as managing your physical health. 

WHO is recommending that healthcare workers take care of their basic needs and ensure they rest during work or between shifts, eat sufficient and healthy food, engage in physical activity, and stay in contact with friends and family. 

“This is a unique and unprecedented scenario for many workers, particularly if they have not been involved in similar responses. Even so, using the strategies that you have used in the past to manage times of stress can benefit you now. The strategies to benefit feelings of stress are the same, even if the scenario is different,” WHO says. 

WHO also noted that some healthcare workers may experience avoidance by their family or community due to stigma or fear over Covid-19. 

“This can make an already challenging situation far more difficult. If possible, staying connected with your loved ones including through digital methods is one way to maintain contact,” it said. 

The organisation is advising healthcare workers to turn to their managers, colleagues and other trusted people as they “might be having similar experiences”.

Older people

WHO noted that older adults, especially those in isolation and those with cognitive decline/dementia, may become “more anxious, angry, stressed, agitated, and withdrawn during the outbreak”. 

O’Malley expressed particular concern over the wellbeing of older people over the coming weeks and months as the outbreak continues. 

She said that older people are already very vulnerable and many are now choosing to self-isolate out of precaution. This could lead to a heightened sense of loneliness within the older community. 

O’Malley suggested that this could be a good opportunity for older people who aren’t accustomed with the internet and social media to give it a go. 

“There is an opportunity for them to get more [accustomed] with online screens, chatting to people online. They might have avoided it until now, maybe these couple of weeks are the days to finally say ‘Ok, I’ll join this famous Facebook that they’ve been talking about forever’,” she said.

WHO is also advising that the public “provide practical and emotional support through families and health professionals”. 

Alone, the organisation that supports older people, has this week launched a national support line and additional supports for older people who have concerns or are facing difficulties over the outbreak. 

The charity can be contacted on 818 222 024. 

Anticipate distress and support one another

The HSE said it is important for people to acknowledge their feelings if they are overwhelmed. 

“Remind yourself to look after your physical and mental health. If you smoke or drink, try to avoid doing this any more than usual. It won’t help in the long-term.

Don’t judge people or make assumptions about who is responsible for the spread of the disease. The coronavirus can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, nationality or ethnicity. We are all in this together.  

If you need to speak to someone, contact: 

  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Samaritans 116 123 or email
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

With reporting by Hayley Halpin. 

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