• People around the world are facing increasing mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • People at risk of abuse, employees facing job uncertainty and children are among those most at risk.
  • Experts respond to questions about managing anxiety and helping support others' mental health.

Among many global health, economic and societal disruptions, the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has forced millions to physically isolate. Combine that with extensive news coverage on the pandemic and an unknown future, and it's no wonder that anxiety is on the rise.

Even though I am able to self-isolate in a safe environment and have access to resources to ensure my wellbeing, I, too, have experienced feelings of stress during this time. I cannot even begin to fathom the insurmountable stress being experienced by those without such resources.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

To learn about methods to handles this stress and how to help others, I spoke with leading social innovators who are experts in the field of mental health and healthcare to garner their insights.

How can I stay mentally healthy?

Chris Underhill, mentor and founder of citiesRISE, is an expert on global mental health. For people like me who are working from home, Underhill proposes using a "framework for the day."

“Implement the same practices as you would on any other day (before the crisis) – wake up, make your bed, shower, shave, eat your breakfast, etc.,” he explains. Each person can devise their own routine or framework based on their own habits.

Underhill also suggest to give yourself a set number of hours to work and to allow yourself to take short breaks, including 20- to 30-minute naps if needed.

He also explains that in order to switch off from work, it is important to engage in an activity that is completely different. Underhill recommends activities such as cooking, doing household chores or listening to music. He stresses the importance of limiting the consumption of news during this period, as this can exacerbate the feelings of anxiety.

My friends and family members are anxious - how can I help?

Bob Filbin is the co-founder and chief data scientist at Crisis Text Line, a platform that offers free confidential crisis intervention via text messaging. From the nearly 150 million messages that have been exchanged on its platforms so far, Crisis Text Line has aggregated the data to prepare for the mental health repercussions of this pandemic.

When speaking to someone experiencing anxiety, Filbin suggests enlisting the following three key tactics.

First, give them a sense of time. “Global issues like this can feel incredibly overwhelming because there is so much uncertainty around it," he explains. "Using words such as ‘day’, ‘week’ and ‘year’ when speaking to someone experiencing anxiety, gives them a sense of time and reassures them that this period will not last forever.”

Filbin suggests the following lines: "Did something in particular happen today to increase your anxiety about the coronavirus?" And, "I'm hearing you’re afraid of how coronavirus will impact you and your family. Let's think of ways for you to get through these next few days."

Image: Crisis Text Line

Second, talk about close relationships. “Words such as family, mum, and parent are incredibly helpful to use around this time,” Filbin says. This is because on one hand, “people are worried about what is going to happen to their family members and those close to them,” but speaking about these close relationships "also increase the sense of stability for the person experiencing stress or anxiety.”

Third, normalise the anxiety. Make apparent to the individual that they are “not alone in feeling the way that they do,” Filbin says. Normalising the anxiety and sharing personal experiences can feel “very validating to the person in crisis, as this shows them that this feeling is normal, and they are not the only one experiencing them.”

Who is particularly vulnerable and what can I do to support them?

While self-isolation may be difficult for us all, some populations are more vulnerable to its potential negative effects, including those experiencing child abuse or domestic violence. (Find resources to seek help here.)

"Our data is showing that finances can also serve as a stressor," Filbin says. It is important to look out for those working in the gig economy or others who are confronted with possible loss of jobs and livelihoods.

People who are in recovery from addiction and other mental health issues are also particularly vulnerable at this time, says Lisa McLaughin, co-founder and CEO of Workit Health, a behavioural health company providing expert, evidence-based addiction care through telemedicine. (Find resources to seek help here.)

To help those in need, we can all help share factual information about the crisis and raise awareness about the mental health ramifications and resources. You can stay up-to-date on the latest information on COVID-19 on the World Health Organization website or on your government's website.

We can also engage in active listening, which means making a conscious effort to hear out not just the words but the complete communication of the person in crisis. “Pay particular attention to language patterns," as some people “may not be obvious when addressing their crisis,” Filbin says.

In addition, using words such as “brave," "smart" and "proud” when speaking to someone in crisis can show empathy and lead them to feel “empowered to move out of the crisis,” Filbin says.

How can I talk to children about the crisis?

Chris Underhill argues that it is key to pay special attention to children during this time. Children are “very imaginative,” and “when they hear adults speaking about the virus in a very distressed way, they are left feeling nervous or can imagine disturbing things,” which can lead to long-term negative effects on the child’s psyche, he explains.

Underhill suggests three important strategies. First, be discreet about what is being said in front of children and young teenagers. “There is no need to be secretive; they should have some information, but it is important for parents to not overload a sense of worry or anxiety about an invisible enemy,” he says.

Second, spend some quality time with your children by showing them special attention and fondness during this time. Children need “a reassuring environment during this time so engage them in fun activities and congratulate them when they perform a task well.”

Third, routines can also help soothe anxieties, he explains. “Children are immensely reassured by discipline, not by being disciplined, so enlist a disciplined routine for your child."

How can I support my employees' mental wellbeing?

As COVID-19 changes how we work, employers must also consider the wellbeing of their employees. For example, Workit Health has ensured its employees have access to “safe housing, transportation or any other means they may need for working from home safe.” Other means could be to implement daily virtual mediation sessions like at Crisis Text Line.

McLaughlin advises employers to “put on your oxygen masks before reaching out to others.” Once staff know that they are “safe and can connect online,” they can, in turn, help those who need assistance, she explains.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Innovative social entrepreneurs are addressing the world’s most serious challenges ranging from illiteracy to girls’ education and disaster relief. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 350 late-stage social entrepreneurs. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand innovative models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field of social enterprise by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social entrepreneurs. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

As fear and anxiety increase during these uncertain times, it is important to recognize and be grateful for what we have, stay connected those we love and care for, and lend a helping hand to those who need it.