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GUEST COLUMN: Mental health and COVID-19: successfully navigating this storm

Mental health
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The COVID-19crisis has raised concerns about numerous health issues, including mental health. Some concerns are directed toward mentally healthy individuals, to help them better adapt to and deal with the emotional challenges of self-isolation.

Additionally, some people have additional challenges which include prolonged working from home, the loss of a job or a business, the lack of consistent safe shelter, food insecurity, substance abuse or domestic violence.

But, there are additional and unique challenges during this time for people living with a mental illness. And for some, more than one of these additional challenges can occur concurrently and compound the negative mental health impacts of this crisis.

However, the popular perception that additional social or economic stressors will always have a negative impact on all people living with a mental illness is false. While it is true that in some cases these stressors can be tipping points leading to a mental illness recurrence, it is both stigmatizing and misleading to think that most people living with a mental illness will be unable to cope with COVID-19.

Crisis situations require everyone to adapt to new challenges and new realities. For some, adapting to a new challenge, never faced before, can be a greater challenge because people may not have developed the skills to deal with the hardships.

However, for those who live with a mental illness, dealing with adversity is a common occurrence. During the COVID-19 crisis, skill sets developed from living with a mental illness can be helpful. For individuals who have experienced a mental illness using your adaptive experiences and sharing your knowledge with others is valuable at this time.

Given our combined experience in the health field, we suggest that people living with a mental illness consider the following recommendations to help them through this challenging time.

People receiving ongoing therapy, please reach out to your health care provider, be it a primary care physician or a mental health specialist, and make sure that you continue to receive the care that you need. If you take medication, ask your physician and pharmacist how you can ensure that you have the amount of medicine that you need.

Additionally, digital technology platforms to deliver counselling, psychotherapy or other kinds of support to people self-isolating at home is rapidly increasing. Virtual services can be a great tool for people who currently are unable to access usually available in-person supports. They may be particularly helpful for individuals unable to access in-person services or in-community resources, such as people living in rural, remote or Indigenous communities. But access to these technologies is uneven. For example, individuals living in some provinces and territories may not have the same level of broadband services offered their urban counterparts. Access to high quality electronic services are even lower in most Indigenous communities across the country. If you don’t have access to an electronic platform that provides for video capability, telephone contact can be a helpful alternative. Both national and provincial/territorial crisis hotlines are available 24/7.

So, make sure that you reach out to your mental health care provider and set up the ongoing therapeutic contact that you need.

Importantly, if you are experiencing a mental health emergency and need to go to the hospital, please do so. Emergency Rooms have developed very effective screening for COVID-19 and have implemented means to ensure that their facilities are safe. If you are uncertain, call ahead or have someone call on your behalf to explain the situation and seek advice on how you should proceed. In some communities, mobile crisis services are available. Make sure that you know how to contact that service and use it if you need to.

During these uncertain times it is important for everyone to take care of their mental health. Stick to a routine that is as consistent as possible and stay connected with close friends and family via phone calls, text messages or other social media platforms. If you are living with mental illness, it is crucial to do everything you can now to prepare to successfully navigate this period of crisis.

An ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure.

Dr. Mohamed-Iqbal Ravalia is a primary care physician, former associate professor of family medicine at MUN, and assistant dean of the Rural Medical Education Network. He represents Newfoundland and Labrador in the Senate of Canada. Dr. Stanley Kutcher is professor emeritus of psychiatry at Dalhousie who represents Nova Scotia in the Senate of Canada.

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