The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges, especially for those who are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their mental and emotional wellbeing. Some are healthcare heroes working on the front lines to combat COVID-19. Others are juggling how to work from home, while also providing care and education for family members. More than 38 million unemployed Americans are struggling to make ends meet after losing their jobs. Social distancing and quarantines have prevented abuse victims from accessing critical in-person resources, while those who live alone are becoming increasingly isolated.
By the end of March 2020, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found more than four in ten adults are feeling negative mental health effects from the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, concerns stemming from economic disruption, childcare, quarantines and isolation are taking a toll on individual psyches.
“I think everyone is feeling anxiety right now,” says Dr. Rebecca Cowan, a board certified telemental health provider and core faculty member in Walden University’s Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.
Combined with social distancing recommendations, this has prompted more people to seek help through teletherapy with a mental health or social work professional, either by phone, text or video chat. Telecounseling services like BetterHelp, Online-Therapy.com and Talkspace, which saw a 65 percent increase in clients from February to April, are options for those needing help during this difficult time.
“A lot of mental health providers have moved their practices online to maintain that connection with their patients or clients,” says Dr. Cowan. “Structure is important and maintaining that connection throughout the quarantine is crucial. I think it’s great that we have the technology and ability to go virtual.”
Each May, people are encouraged to reflect on their mental wellbeing during Mental Health Month. This year, telecounseling is at the forefront as it has been providing increasingly critical support to those in need during the pandemic.
“Most healthcare plans and providers are now allowing individuals to receive telecounseling free or at a discount to manage their mental health,” says Dr. Cowan. “That’s really good because it’s opened up the opportunity for a lot of people to connect with a therapist.”
Dr. Cowan assists her telecounseling clients with several issues stemming from the COVID-19-imposed quarantines and social distancing, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One of the key issues her patients are facing is schedule disruption, which can lead to changes in sleep and eating habits. When dealing with anxiety, Dr. Cowan says regular routines can be critical to maintaining balance.
“I encourage people to focus on family meals. If you’re quarantined in your house with other family members, sit down together at a regular time every day and have that connection with each other. In addition, keep a healthy sleep schedule. Think about what life was like prior to being stuck at home and try to recreate that as much as you can. Don’t stay up all night watching Netflix just because you can.”
Isolation is a topic of concern for Dr. Cowan’s patients. She encourages them to maintain links with the outside world through social media and video communication platforms, including Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facebook and more.
“Schedule something to look forward to, like a Skype date with a good friend,” says Dr. Cowan. “It depends on what your interests are but connecting virtually can be very healthy for coping. I know people who always wanted to get into yoga, but they never had the chance. A lot of people are using resources online like free classes on YouTube. It’s a great opportunity to practice yoga, meditate or focus on breathing.”
Dr. Cowan has noticed another trend through her telemental health experiences – clients express a lot of pressure to complete large projects such as organizing sections of their house in one block of time. She urges individuals to lower expectations, focusing instead on small goals.
“Right now, it’s pretty distressing for all of us. I think we need to work on getting by day-by-day, instead of tackling all the things we want to do at once.”
Dr. Cowan began offering online therapy in 2017 and likens it to her role as an online educator, in terms of convenience and practice.
“It’s been really nice to be able to reach out to people who are in more rural areas and don’t have opportunities to connect with a therapist,” says Dr. Cowan. “It’s the same with online education in which we’re breaking down barriers and connecting with students everywhere.”