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You and COVID-19: Complex mental health issues in a pandemic

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You are not alone

What a start to 2020. As we all came together as a community and attempted to deal with the fallout of the bushfire crisis, none of us could have foreseen that there was another huge challenge looming on the horizon. 

The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is unprecedented. And it’s confusing and worrying for all of us – causing increased stress, anxiety and fear in many.

For people already living with complex mental health issues, the impact of a pandemic like this can be significant.   

Physical and psychological impacts of imposed quarantine, self-isolation, physical distancing and separation from loved ones can exacerbate or trigger the symptoms of mental health issues.  

Anxiety disorders such as health anxiety, hoarding disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), agoraphobia and panic disorder can be particularly affected.

Caring for ourselves and others and spreading kindness is essential if we’re to get through this period as a community.

How to care for ourselves and others during COVID-19

Now more than ever, it’s important to learn or put into place strategies that will help us get through these tough times.

It's important, though, to remember that while the methods below can be useful in easing our stresses, it's completely normal to need more support. (Try reaching out to others in the SANE Forums, contacting the SANE Help Centre, or accessing your existing clinical supports). None of us have experienced a global pandemic on this scale before, and we're all just doing the best we can to cope. 

Basic Self-care

Don’t forget the basics of self-care:

  • Try to get enough quality sleep – it’s good for your immune system.
  • If you take medication, try to ensure you have enough available to you. This is one less thing to worry about.
  • Avoid the use of drugs and alcohol to cope with stress.
  • Physical exercise – it’s calming and may boost immune function. Even when inside your home, try to do some kind of activity that works for your body.
  • Continue to access nature and sunlight wherever possible, within the current government guidelines. Even indoors, you can care for a houseplant, look out the window at nature, or listen to natural sounds like birdsong, ocean waves or rainfall.
  • Participate in relaxation and mindfulness activities.
  • Try the Reach out WorryTime app.
  • Try to stick to a routine that work for you and gives you a structure to your day.

Further reading: Ways to unwind and destress when you live with a mental illness, Treatments for mental illness, Mental illness & physical health, Self-help if you're feeling suicidal, and Coping with flashbacks  

Physical distancing, with social connection

Being physically isolated doesn’t have to mean that we’re cut off socially too.

Reaching out to people you trust is one of the best ways to reduce negative psychological effects from isolation.

Consider talking to someone outside your household at least once a day. You could try:

  • Video chatting – you can ‘meet’ with friends and eat together or ‘catch up for coffee’
  • Watching a movie or TV show at the same time from afar (try Netflix Party).
  • Phone calls, email, text or instant messaging, social media, hobby chat rooms.
  • Joining the COVID-19 conversation in our SANE Forums.
  • Playing a game online with friends, using apps like Houseparty.
  • QuarantineChat.
  • Joining a virtual book club.

Stay informed, but limit media exposure

Ingesting large amounts of information can heighten feelings of anxiety. Ways to minimize the impact include:

  • Staying informed (not knowing can be just as stressful!) but seeking out factual information from reliable sources.
  • Limiting exposure to coronavirus media to one or two times per day.
  • Focusing on the facts, rather than emotions experienced by yourself or others.
  • Changing social media settings. Mute triggering keywords or groups if they are too overwhelming, and try to limit the amount of time you spend scrolling.
  • If people around you are talking about coronavirus and you are finding it overwhelming, it’s OK to ask them to talk about something else or move away from the conversation. Don’t participate, if it’s making you feel anxious.

Accessing factual information from reliable sources can help you feel more in control. Reputable sources of good quality information include: 

Further reading: Curating my online world

Caring for others

Try to offer support and check in on family members, neighbours, friends and colleagues – particularly those who live alone. Even just knowing that someone cares can be enough to dampen a person’s stress responses. 

Find opportunities to amplify positive and hopeful stories and positive images of people adapting to physical distancing. Examples include Couch Choir, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, Coronavirus volunteer army, Snewpit app and Balcony singing in solidarity spreads across Italy.

Acknowledge that others are likely to be feeling anxious too. Try to avoid sharing sensationalizing news you may have heard when in conversation. Or perhaps ask someone’s permission before sharing unsolicited information with them. If they prefer not to engage with conversations around the virus at that moment, respect their boundaries.

Further reading: Families, friends & carers,  Engaging in your own self-care


We’ll have more information coming soon on how to care for yourself and others during this challenging time.
In particular, we’ll be exploring the very specific ways that people living with particular diagnoses or with particular life experiences may be affected, and what to do about it.
Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, or subscribe to our newsletter to stay in the loop.

If you (or someone you know) needs support - the SANE Help Centre is open from Monday - Friday, 10am - 10pm AEST. Our team of counsellors are available by phone, web chat and email, so you can comfortably communicate in the way that feels best for you.

We can provide you with counselling, support, information and referrals, and we specialise in assisting adults who identify as having a complex mental health issue, complex trauma or high levels of psychological distress.

We also provide support to the family or friends that care about these people.

Click to visit the SANE Help Centre now.

If you'd like to chat with other people who understand what you're going through, the SANE Forums are online 24/7. There's one Forum for Lived Experience, and another for family, friends or carers. The Forums are anonymous, and moderated by health professionals, to keep the conversation safe and supportive.

Click to visit the SANE Forums now.

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