Over the past six weeks life as we knew it all over the world has changed. The word “unprecedented” has become commonplace on various news and media platforms as we grapple to fully describe the extent of unparalleled upheaval the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the world over. Most facets of our lives have been drastically impacted in an attempt to “flatten the curve” and adhere to recommendations around social distancing. We are compelled to protect the most vulnerable among us, namely those with pre-existing respiratory illnesses, the immunosuppressed, seniors, as well as racialized people and those in poverty.
Most of us have strived to comply with the expert recommendations made by Health Authorities and all levels of government. Our collective mandate is clear — to slow the rates of transmission of this microbial assailant, thereby reducing burdens on the health care systems and providers, while also hopefully reducing short-term morbidity and mortality rates. While efforts around this have been valiant and swift, have we been just as keen to address the mental and emotional impacts of this pandemic?
Indeed, our resilience, optimism, hope and joy are being tested in ways which most of us could never have imagined just six months ago, as our lives continue to be impacted financially, occupationally, socially and even sexually. Bearing in mind that well-being and mental health are both defined by more than the mere absence of psychiatric pathology, how do we maintain calm in the midst of this proverbial storm, while remaining confident in the knowledge that we do have what it takes to weather it?
The reality is that there truly are no simple answers to any of these questions. However, there are recommendations which experts in Mental Health Care have been able to provide to assist us in navigating all of this. Here are five ways to cope with the Covid-19 lockdown.
1. Avoid self-medication
Starting with the basics, we need to be careful with just how much of that socially-distant drinking we are doing on social platforms with friends. The tendency for some of us to self-medicate with excessive amounts of alcohol, cannabis or other substances can be amplified during an inherently stressful time such as this pandemic. Moderation is key, and reaching out to your family physician or local Substance Use Support Program may be a good idea if you are finding that your ability to remain productive or interact meaningfully with friends, and family members seems to be compromised.
2. Get enough sleep and maintain a nutritious diet
Beyond minding our chemical vices, we should strive to eat nutrient rich foods, drink plenty of water and aim to get that elusive but expert recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night. And yes, I do mean at night, and not during the day, due to inverted sleep patterns associated with a more relaxed daytime schedule. This is essential for promoting or maintaining a sense of well-being and is the foundation of good mental health. Assuring a regular sleep-wake schedule and minimizing both late afternoon and evening consumption of caffeine may also positively impact sleep quality as may reducing screen time exposure after sunset.
3. Stay connected with loved ones
Staying connected with your tribe virtually may go a long way to reducing perceived loneliness at this time. Meditating or reconnecting with relatives and friends who you have not spoken with in a while can also be ways to deal with being at home more often in a more adaptive way. Getting outdoors for a solitary walk with your favourite podcast or pandemic playlist is also a great idea.
4. Keep your financial house in order
Beyond the physical or emotional side of things, the financial strain which all of this may place you under may be intense. Being aware of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and making use of it is one way to address that, but there are many additional options available to you as well. You may try approaching your credit card company to inquire about a reduced interest rate on current balances or to explore other repayment options which they may be able to offer you. Certainly, contacting your current bank to inquire about ways to possibly defer mortgage, loan, or line of credit payments, or to seek a loan to get you through this period, may all go a long way to alleviating your current financial demands.
5. Be attentive to your child’s safety and mental health
Speaking of finances, immediate needs around provision of childcare and continuing to raise a family at this time may be more challenging than ever. Allowing children the space to acknowledge their fears is a good place to start. Appropriate to the child’s developmental level, you might explain which symptoms may be a part of this viral illness while highlighting that the course of this condition tends to be relatively mild for healthy young people.
Also, remind kids that you — and other adults in their lives — are taking all of the necessary precautions to ensure that they remain safe and that you do as well. Assisting children in identifying valid sources of health-related information (such as the World Health Organization, Health Canada and your Provincial Ministry of Health) is a wise approach, as is limiting their exposure to constant updates around the pandemic. Try placing emphasis on de-escalation measures around social distancing which are moving forward in certain locations across the country, and perhaps even locally.
As best you can or are able to, continue to allow children the opportunity to engage in activities which highlight their strengths and bring them joy and even a sense of accomplishment. Additionally, minimizing constant exposure to seemingly unending news updates on the pandemic, and minimizing discussion at the supper table around the same should also be considered.
In short, some, if not most of what I have covered here may not be new information for you. If it is, I hope you come away from reading this feeling a bit more encouraged and empowered. If it is not, cheers to a review of sage advice nonetheless and a reminder to continue with or start doing what you already know you should be doing.
Beyond that, realize that if you do not come out of this pandemic having done a ton of gourmet cooking, having honed a new skill, learned a new language, or having built or maintained a “perfect” physique, that is totally fine too, and I do mean that. In the end, having come through all of this relatively unscathed emotionally, mentally, or physically is the goal; the rest truly is a bonus. So, do your best to be kind and patient with yourself and others. Know that we are collectively doing an excellent job of flattening the curve, and rest assured that this too shall pass.
By Dr. D. Richard A. Elcock, MD, FRCPC
Dr. Richard Elcock is a GTA native, born in Toronto, ON and raised in Mississauga, ON. He is a first generation Canadian of Afro-Barbadian and Afro-Jamaican descent. He holds dual certification from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in both General Psychiatry as well as Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. He is currently in practice in St. John’s, NL.