Mental Health Challenges in a Strange New World

11/05/2020

Coronavirus has led to a sharp increase in anxiety across the globe, as people adjust their lives to what is a very real threat. The world doesn't seem as safe as it did just a few weeks ago, with public places and other people representing a possible source of infection. Feelings of stress and anxiety are a common reaction to the disease, not just to the possibility of developing acute physical symptoms, but also to the overall and sometimes unshakable feeling of uncertainty.

Most people haven't dealt with anything like this before, with uncertainty often leading to overwhelming or confused feelings. According to clinical psychologist, Professor Michael Kyrios, "Humans are pre-programmed to continuously estimate how likely it is that something negative is going to happen, and how severe that negative event or impact is going to be." No-one is sure exactly how long COVID-19 will be a factor in our lives, which means the likelihood or severity of danger is unknown and can be overestimated.

In addition to the disease itself, COVID-19 has become a disease of isolation. Anyone with coronavirus needs to isolate to avoid passing on the disease. People who have been in contact with the virus also need to remove themselves from society, and even those without symptoms are advised to stay inside to stop the spread. While these isolation measures make sense and have worked fairly well in controlling the pandemic, they are also responsible for growing feelings of loneliness. Physical distancing may work, but it's not without side effects.

Calls to mental health hotlines have spiked over recent weeks, and Australian Government modelling forecasts a 50% increase in suicide cases related to COVID-19. A rise in domestic violence and addiction cases have also been forecast, as people struggle to cope with anxiety about the disease and physical isolation from the rest of the world. Due to the current level of success in Australia and New Zealand in terms of controlling COVID-19, the economic shutdown and associated distress may lead to more long-term deaths than the virus itself.

In order to emerge from this period with strength and clarity, it's important to look after yourself. Mindfulness and physical activity are crucial, so spend some time with your thoughts and your running shoes. Professional help is available, with Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and other organisations adding resources to cope with growing demand. Despite the difficulties involved, human connection is more important than ever, with phone calls and video conferencing apps taking over from handshakes and hugs. While we may be isolated from each other at the moment, it's important to remember that we're all going through this together.