Coronavirus posing significant mental health threat

Morgan Liotta

26/03/2020 3:33:41 PM

The outcomes of social isolation during a pandemic go far beyond the physical.

Man alone on bed
Loss of connection and routine in daily social activity is one impact of the pandemic.

‘We have to change the way we interact as human beings in our society for quite a long time.’
That is part of Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy’s recent advice on strict Government social-distancing requirements to help flatten the coronavirus curve. 
While social distancing and isolation are key in helping to reduce further spread of the virus, these measures can also have an adverse impact on mental health, particular with the uncertainty a pandemic can bring.
The Beyond Blue Support Service, is experiencing an increasing number of calls and emails about coronavirus, with one in four contacts overtly related to the disease.
The ‘Coping during the coronavirus outbreak’ online forum is receiving an average of 2000 hits per day ­– seven times more than a similar online discussion set up during the summer bushfires. The forums aim to provide a safe place for people to connect and support each other by sharing stories of hope, resilience and recovery.
To support the community during rising concern about coronavirus, Beyond Blue has developed a suite of online resources to guide people in taking care of their mental health.
Staying connected with family and friends is ‘vital’ for maintaining good mental health as the coronavirus outbreak continues to impact our daily lives, Beyond Blue CEO Georgie Harman said.
‘We expect that there will be more demand for mental health support as the health, social and economic consequences of COVID-19 play out, and we would encourage everyone to reach out early,’ Ms Harman said.
With the coronavirus pandemic essentially shifting much of our day-to-day structure ­– people forced to work from home, caring for children who would normally be in school, unable to meet friends for coffee or go to the gym – a loss of connection and routine can bring with it a grey cloud.
But Dr Caroline Johnson, GP and Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Department of General Practice, says there are ways to keep your mental health motivated.
‘Remember that physical isolation doesn’t mean social isolation,’ she told newsGP.
‘Make sure you stay connected with people via technology and don’t just rely on watching news and reading social media – you need to ensure the focus is on non-COVID-19 topics as well.
‘Try to keep active within the confines of your home and garden and find tasks that create personal meaning, like working from home where possible and reaching out to others who might be isolated too … this can reduce the feelings of helplessness.
‘Another cognitive technique for those who feel well but are isolating to reduce transmission to other more vulnerable members of the community, is to see this as an act of love and respect, rather than a burden and a punishment.’
Technology can provide support during times of forced isolation, such as Skype/Zoom chats, online fitness classes, telehealth consults, but what are the options for those with limited internet access?
‘Telephone is still a good back-up option,’ Dr Johnson said. ‘If you are really cut off from technology, think about other creative things you might do, like writing a journal, mindfulness meditation, crafts and other hobbies.’
Dr Johnson is also keen to note that there are various factors relating to how social isolation impacts someone, including personality, the reason for isolating, and their financial situation.
‘Obviously if you are unwell, or lacking the security of adequate life necessities, stress and anxiety will follow,’ she said.
‘Pandemics bring lots of uncertainty, and this exacerbates people’s sense of fear and worry.
‘[For GPs and other health professionals,] you might be under pressure to learn new skills, like conducting telehealth consultations from home, but at least this is an antidote to feeling trapped and unable to help at a time your colleagues need you.’
The uncertainty of the forced period of social distancing and isolation due to coronavirus also led Dr Johnson to acknowledge that social withdrawal can be a symptom of burnout.
‘Activity that goes against the natural social nature of most humans could lead to feelings of burnout over time,’ she said.
‘So it’s important that we all reach out to each other and check in regularly to support each other in uncertain times.’
The release of temporary Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) item numbers for telehealth and phone services in response to the coronavirus pandemic will allow GP providers of Focussed Psychological Strategies access to claim a range of MBS item numbers where the service is bulk billed.
These item numbers will help protect vulnerable GPs and other healthcare providers who are currently authorised to use telehealth item numbers, to use telehealth for all consultations with all their patients. It will also allow people to access services in their home while they undergo self-isolation or quarantine, reducing the risk of exposure to the wider community.
The Federal Government is currently consulting with peak mental health bodies on a package to support Australians who are experiencing mental health issues related to the coronavirus.

The RACGP has more information on coronavirus available on its website.
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