Terrell Strayhorn Explains How COVID-19 Is Affecting Our Mental Health & Provides Mechanisms for Coping


Terrell Strayhorn

The world has become well acquainted with the term “social distancing” over the last few months. Social distancing is a preventative measure that can help reduce the spread of a contagious disease by encouraging physical distance between people, and by limiting the number of instances people come into contact with one another. The spread of the virus known as COVID-19 has triggered major disruptions in our daily lives, including stay-at-home orders, panic buying, the closing of non-essential services, telecommuting, and relentless hand washing. While Government officials attempt to slow the spread of the virus by imposing severe social-distancing measures, health experts caution an increase in mental health issues due to the absence of social interaction. According to studies, feelings of isolation or loneliness are clearly linked to the onset of diabetes, autoimmune disorders like arthritis and lupus, as well as cardiovascular diseases. As a result, now more than ever, it is important to take necessary self-care measures and check-in with others who may be struggling during this chaotic time.

“It is completely normal to feel anxious or overwhelmed during a global pandemic that has already altered our lives in so many ways,” states President of Do Good Work Educational Consulting GroupDr. Terrell Strayhorn. One of the first steps you can take to curb your anxiety is relying on credible sources for all virus updates, and implementing the advice issued by medical professionals. Experts warn that the virus can spread even before individuals start to exhibit any symptoms of illness (i.e., asympotomatic), and can live on various surfaces for differing, long periods of time. For example, the virus can exist on cardboard for one day, and plastic or stainless steel for up to three days. “Washing your hands, wearing gloves, avoiding touching your face, and maintaining at least six-feet of physical distance from others are effective preventative measures that are helping to flatten the curve,” remarked Strayhorn, who also serves as Professor of Urban Education at LeMoyne-Owen College. Discussed below are several ways in which COVID-19 is impacting individuals’ mental health, and advice on healthy ways we can all cope.

High Risk Individuals

It is important to note that certain groups of people will be more susceptible to mental health problems as a result of the pandemic. Research indicates that the most vulnerable clusters include, individuals aged 16 to 24, women, single child households, health workers, and people with preexisting mental illness. While relatively healthy individuals are developing mental health problems as a result of social isolation, long-term sufferers are at a higher risk of fulfilling self-destructive behaviours. Some of the most common mental health issues include generalized anxiety disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress.

More than six million Americans suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is often characterized by persistent and excessive worrying. Common symptoms of GAD include feelings of imminent danger, irritability, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and increased heart rate. Consequently, people diagnosed with GAD may experience heightened fears of catching or dying from the virus. Limiting one's access to negative news coverage and practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation, can help individuals achieve a healthier mindset during the pandemic.If someone you know is suffering from one of the mood or personality disorders mentioned above, be sure to reach out and provide them with virtual support during this crucial time.

At the same time, healthcare professionals working on the frontlines are prone to anxiety because of the growing demand for their services. Healthcare workers may have direct access to coronavirus patients, need to work extended hours, or feel pressured to self-isolate from family members in an effort to contain the virus. The best tool for managing stress amongst medical staff is through preparedness. Formal and informal training includes extensive knowledge regarding transmission, how to screen patients, the use of protective equipment, managing limited resources, and more. There is also a myriad of support services available to health workers during this time, such as counseling, stress management, and self-care strategies.

Potential for Long-Term Social Distancing

One of the biggest questions surrounding COVID-19 is how much longer we will need to endure social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Not having a clear indication of when we can expect the world to go back to its previous order is adding to individuals’ stress and the development of mental health issues. According to psychiatrists, mental and physical health problems start to arise once social isolation goes beyond a few weeks. A study published in the journal, Science, proposes that intermittent social distancing might be necessary until as late as 2022 if no suitable vaccines are identified. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently stated that three vaccines are currently in the early stages of testing in China and the United States. While scientists are working around-the-clock, the timeline for a vaccine remains 12 to 18 months away.

Disrupted Routine

Professor Terrell Strayhorn claims that social isolation has caused several disruptions to our daily routines. To protect the health of Americans, schools and many businesses have shifted online. Living in close quarters with children and partners for an extended period can lead to increased conflict and low productivity. Firstly, numerous challenges come with working from home, such as inadequate workspace, lack of communication, technology issues, and poor health habits. On top of all this, with children at home, working parents are prone to greater distractions and the need to supervise small children. One approach to combat the stressors that may result from increased amount of time spent with family is scheduling alone time in private rooms. For instance, if you do not have your own bedroom, you can plan to utilize the basement or another area of the house for a couple of hours per day. No basement? That’s OK, try stepping out on the balcony, porch or patio to read or go for a quick run. Young people are one of the at-risk groups for increased mental health problems due to COVID-19. With school and work closures, individuals are unable to spend quality time with friends and participate in social outings. Luckily, various applications exist to help people stay connected during isolation, including Zoom, HouseParty, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Finally, a lack of financial security is also putting ample strain on families and individuals working in non-essential industries. According to The Department of Labor, more than 701,000 jobs have been lost in the United States during February and March because of the pandemic. To help ease Americans financial burdens, the IRS has begun depositing money into the bank accounts of people that meet the federal government’s income qualifications. Additionally, those with unemployment benefits are going to be receiving an extra $600 per week.

Elimination of Non-Essential Activities

Depression and feelings of boredom are lurking as a result of the mass closing of non-essential services and activities. Most governments are issuing statements as to what is deemed “non-essential” as these items may differ between States and Countries. For the most part, restaurants, bars, retail businesses, and fitness centers have all been shut down during our fight against COVID-19. However, safer-at-home orders typically allow individuals to continue visiting local grocery stores, take-out food options, hospitals, drugstores, household, and automotive shops. In contrast, governments and medical professionals are insisting that congregating on playgrounds is not permitted during this time, due to the high risk of virus transmission in these areas. Although, outdoor activities like walking and jogging are encouraged as long as you maintain social-distancing protocol. Some people are taking advantage of their time in quarantine by learning new skills, such as sewing, knitting, painting, singing, dancing, and much more.

Lack of Physical Touch

Online messaging and video conferencing is no substitution for human touch. Medical experts have made it clear that maintaining six feet of distance is crucial in ‘flattening the curve.’ Various studies have proven that physical touch is associated with an array of positive health benefits. During acts of hugging or cuddling, the hormone oxytocin is released,creating feel-good sensations and an overall feeling of happiness. Human interaction is also responsible for lowering blood pressure, reducing heart rate, decreasing stress and anxiety, and boosting immune function. Sadly, most hospitals have banned visitors to prevent the spread of coronavirus, despite physical touch playing a helpful role in the recovery process of patients. Medical professionals insist that the touch of a healthcare worker, such as a pat on the shoulder, can elevate a patient’s mood and reduce physical pain. Furthermore, we are all under strict orders to stop visiting elderly parents and grandparents, as they are most at-risk of becoming severely ill from the virus. As such, it is important to maintain contact via phone calls and video messaging, as often as possible, to diminish feelings of isolation. Extend virtual touches— “likes,” claps, and emoticons—where possible, knowing the importance of human connections.

Humans are social animals that crave contact with others. While social distancing is less than optimal, we need to remember that it is temporary and essential in our fight to defeat COVID-19. The best defence against mental health issues during this time, include limiting negative media coverage, employing good hygiene, maintaining a virtual presence, eating healthy, exercising, and practicing self-care. Remember to check-in on people that may be at a higher risk of developing mental health problems, which will, in turn, will help to raise your spirits as well. 

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