Sad woman looking our from a balcony

People who are managing a mental illness might have increased anxiety and fear during the novel coronavirus pandemic — and that's a perfectly normal response for anyone in a disaster.

But if you are having trouble coping with the increased fear or isolation, there is help.

Crisis hotlines are available at all hours, and UMMS and other health systems offer telehealth psychiatry services, including for addiction disorders.

Mental Health Resources

When Depression, Anxiety Are Overwhelming

Help is a phone call away. Anyone with suicidal thoughts should immediately call a hotline such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).

Anyone with coronavirus symptoms can dial the UMMS Nurse Call Line to speak with a nurse for advice on what to do.

Seek Help Safely

If you need help, try to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) by using the phone, first.

UMMS hospital emergency departments (EDs) are there for patients who are in a severe crisis, but it is strongly suggested that you call first.

Calling first will help you avoid undue exposure to other potentially infected individuals, and the ED can direct you in advance about where to go for the fastest service and advice.

Managing Mental Illness

"People who have pre-existing mental health conditions are vulnerable in a disaster, and their symptoms might increase," Constance Noll, DNP, CRNP, a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner at UM Upper Chesapeake Health.

  • If you have a pre-existing mental health condition and you take medications, be sure to continue to take them. Take steps to maintain your supply and plan for refills.
  • If you have a mental health provider and are in treatment, stay in treatment and be sure to let your provider know how you are doing.

Those in particular who might be vulnerable while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic are people with substance use disorders and pre-existing mental health conditions, which could include:

  • Anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or phobias
  • Depression, bipolar disorder and other mood disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia

"Although symptoms might increase, at the same time, people are resilient, even during a crisis, and there are ways to take steps to protect yourself and manage your symptoms," says Noll, who is also chair of the Recovery Council of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.

As an American Red Cross mental health responder, she counseled survivors after the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, the 9-11 attacks in Pennsylvania and New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Noll provides this context and advice for all who are struggling:

Find Strategies to Deal With Anxiety and Fear

The first thing to remember is that anxiety and fear are normal responses to any disaster, for anyone. However, when you are experiencing this anxiety, it doesn't feel normal. It feels like you're losing control.

It's important to focus on what can be controlled, and getting help when you've exhausted the ways you usually help yourself get through bad times. One of the most difficult things to deal with right now is uncertainty. Remember, we are all in this together, dealing with similar thoughts.

Use Information to Control Symptoms and Anxiety

There are ways that can help prevent getting coronavirus. Taking these actions is something you do have control over. Information is one of the best antidotes for anxiety.

With information, you can take the right steps, such as social distancing – also called physical distancing. Stay at least 6 feet away from people who might have been exposed to coronavirus.

Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your face.

Some people may choose to take their shoes off just inside the door when they get home from getting food or supplies, and then quickly change into fresh clothes.

Practice Self-Care

It is extremely important to take care of yourself. What makes you the best-functioning person each day? Go to the max with healthy choices: Eat nutritious foods, drink plenty of water, get exercise, stick to a good sleep schedule and try mindful approaches to reducing stress.

Use technology — phone, texting, email, real-time video calls through Skype and FaceTime, or social media — to stay in touch with family and friends who can provide a positive, supportive presence.

Make Friends – From a Physical Distance

If you don't have a lot of connections, now is a good time to make a few more. If you go out for a walk and see a neighbor, smile and wave, maybe chat from six feet away.

If you don't know what to say, a simple, "How are you doing?" will suffice. You can compare notes about what each of you is doing to cope.

Don't be shy about reaching out even to online or social media groups, if that's more comfortable for you, but be mindful of your time spent in front of a screen. Try to go outside, or if you can't do that, exercise in your home.

Take Breaks From the News

While it's important to stay informed through the news, it's just as important to take a break from it. After reading or listening to the reports, when you notice the news is starting to repeat things you already have heard, it's time to stop.

Switch to something that brings you joy, such as music, film, exercise or gardening.

Is it time to rekindle that hobby you use to love? What are the things you didn't have time for before? Can you do them now?

Embrace Your Superpower

If there was ever a time for good hand-washing, this is it. People who deal with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors might find their germ-avoidance habits of use now.

Be careful, though, about hand-washing and cleaning if you are causing harm to your skin with severe redness or abrasion. Soothe your hands with lotion or a drop of oil after washing them.

Maybe Today Is the Day You Get Sober

Many people who abuse alcohol or drugs start each day thinking it's the day they will stop. If someone is inspired by the pandemic to actively seek recovery from substance abuse, then they can reach out for help. It's always a good day to get sober or maintain your sobriety.

That help can start via telepsychiatry or a crisis hotline, to reduce the risk of exposure to coronavirus. Trained providers can give you a good start on the phone and refer you to medical treatment.

Everyone Should Limit Alcohol and Drugs

Even for adults who do not have a substance abuse disorder, excessive use of alcohol is a bad idea for several reasons: It can interfere with your judgment or even make you more anxious.

Too much caffeine can also exacerbate anxiety and interfere with sleep. Moderation is always the key.

Also, try non-medication coping strategies, such as exercise, yoga, relaxation, music or talking to a friend.

You Are Resilient

Remember that, as human beings, we are resilient, and you are resilient. Even with increased anxiety or other symptoms, there are ways you can control your response to any crisis and manage your health.