Managing mental health during coronavirus - experts at WHO share insights

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Stressed? You're not alone. Coronavirus is creating anxiety for many of us, whether it's job losses or fear of them, to illness and the uncertain end date to all of this. Our mental health and wellbeing is being tested.

So at a media briefing yesterday, it was helpful to hear from leaders at the World Health Organisation (WHO) on what we should do to look after our mental health during the crisis. These figureheads were once faceless bureaucrats, but we have since got to know them as wise friends. Here is what they had to say:

"Act with kindness, act with love"

Practice breathing techniques, mindfulness and meditation, suggests Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, who says he himself finds these alternative practices useful. “I discuss disturbing thoughts with those around me. Try to stay positive. As a husband, and leader it’s important for me to display empathy. Act with kindness, act with love, but with physical distancing."

Exercise, or do an activity

Aiysha Malik, technical officer at the department of Mental Health and Substance Use at WHO, said they are advocating everyone to take part in physical activity: “Create new routines or do old ones, do an activity that creates a feeling of satisfaction, maintain social connections – this is especially important for older adults.”

NHS and government have said that we can take one form of exercise a day outside, even if it's just a gentle walk. Make the most of it.

Seek information from trusted sources

WHO is advising people to read the facts but to look for the positives to protect our mental health. “Minimize watching, reading or listening to news about COVID-19 that causes you to feel anxious or distressed,” says the WHO's guide: Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak.  “Seek information only from trusted sources and mainly so that you can take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones.”

Discussing this, Malik explained that: “Hope and solidarity supporting neighbours, sharing hopeful stories or sharing innovations for how to spend time when in isolation can have a positive impact on our mental health."

“We may be collectively experiencing this stress and suffering, we can collectively support each other too.”

Go back to basics

Wellbeing advice can sometimes sound simplistic – we all know that eating well and moving more are beneficial for our wellbeing for example. Yet returning to these basics are important, says Malik.

“Because we know mental health can worsen in a time of high stress like that created by this emergency we want to emphasise the basic strategies – looking after your basic needs cannot be underestimated. We can feel mentally better if we are as physically healthy as possible – so that's getting enough sleep and rest and eating healthy food.”

She encouraged people to do what works for them: “What people have done in the past can help now – activities people find relaxing, whether a hobby or psychosocial technique you learned in the past. Keep doing these."

“Routines are very important for creating a sense of structure.”

"We can feel mentally better if we are as physically healthy as possible"

Avoid alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism

Malik warned that pre-existing mental health conditions can flare up in times of high stress: “Chronic stress has a debilitating effect on mental health and physical health and people with existing substance issues may experience relapse during this time,”she said.

She called for mental health services to be “strengthened and well coordinated in meeting this need.”

Practical advice for health workers

There was specific advice for hospitals on how they can support their workers’ mental health. “Health workers and other support workers face immense pressures right now - it can’t be underestimated,” said Malik.

She said that leaders in hospitals and healthcare should consider practical ways of reducing stress, such as rotating workers from high stress positions to lower stress positions. “There should be good comms with the team, so people feel able to approach their leads to say how feeling, experienced workers can work alongside those less so, it’s helpful as part of a buddy system," she said.

Senior doctors and leaders should consider rotating their team from high stress positions to lower stress positions

"Make sure there are breaks and that workers are getting sufficient breaks and make sure they know how to access psychological support if they need to.”

Concluding the session, Dr Hans Kluge spoke about acknowledging that times are tough: “It’s natural for each of us to feel, stress anxiety fear and loneliness.

"But we can draw on remarkable powers of strength and resilience and co-operation that we as humans possess.”

WHO guide Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the
COVID-19 outbreak here 





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