About two weeks ago, I wrote a column stating that behavioral healthcare’s role in the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis was no fairy tale. Using the Goldilocks story, I advocated for trying to find the right amount of fear. As we all know now, finding that right amount of fear is even more difficult when the crisis has become a pandemic and the United States is shutting down so many aspects of everyday life. Of course, following all the measures to maintain physical health is a priority, but those of us with expertise in mental health also have a major contribution to make. Infection of our minds often races ahead of infection in our bodies.
Here are some suggestions that leaders in our field might convey, at least for now:
- Better sooner rather than too much later. Certainly there can be a case made that our lockdown is occurring before necessary in some places. This may include whether to postpone big professional meetings, like my American Psychiatric Association annual meeting at the end of April. However, the health risks of waiting too long greatly exceed that of making such decisions too early. We can try to help contain the anxiety of this acute disruption by supporting the necessity to closing down non-essential activities.
- Health before wealth. You may recall the best-selling book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: P.S. It’s All Small Stuff” by Michael Mantell, PhD, first published in 1988. I have been fortunate to be in contact with him recently. To me, the paradox seems to be that small stuff, the stuff of everyday life, has become big stuff along with the obvious big stuff of infection risk. So far, Dr. Mantell has come up with a philosophy, “health before wealth,” which may help to layer our priorities when everything may feel like big stuff.
- Flexible and agreeable. When our grandchildren were born, my wife, Rusti, came up with a couple of guiding principles for them. One of them was to be flexible and agreeable. It now seems like we all have to be that way as we try to adjust to such immense life changes that have been made so quickly. Now is not the time to be rigid and too critical of others. Getting into that mode of responsiveness may require using relaxation techniques. We all likely have our own ways to relax, whether that is music, sports, reading the news (or not reading the news), and more. Meditation is one proven technique. Something simple consists of the essence of relaxation: taking deep, slow breaths when fear seems to be escalating unnecessarily.
- Social connections amidst social distancing. Perhaps harder than getting used to enhanced cleanliness is the recommendation to maintain social distance of at least six feet. Yet, that may be one of the most essential things we can do. For those live social activities that are still available, becoming use to that distancing seems important. When that is not possible, loneliness can be overcome to some degree by online social connections and other substitutes. We seem to usually be at our best in an acute disaster in helping one another. The challenge here may be to maintain being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in an acute crisis that maintains and mutates over time.
- Count our blessings. I recall that the Chinese definition of a crisis is that it can be both a danger and an opportunity. Now may be the time to count our blessings that we usually take for granted. Moreover, it may be an opportunity to make changes for the better in what we prioritize in life. Make the most of the increasing time you may be spending with loved ones.
You may have already found other ways to help the mental health of others even beyond our patients. Please share them with us and others, especially the major media where mental health professionals seem to have been relatively absent.