5 tips for supporting mental health during COVID-19

A man named Ben (who declined to give his last name) participates in a mental health group online chat, conducted via the internet because of social distancing regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Sydney, Australia, April 24, 2020.  REUTERS/Jill Gralow - RC2YAG9Y4R8U
There has been a rise in online peer support and facilitated groups platforms.
Image: REUTERS/Jill Gralow
  • The coronavirus crisis has left many feeling lonely, helpless and looking for support.
  • Face-to-face mental health treatment is evolving and moving online.
  • Post COVID-19 emotional support services will be more accessible for people who truly need them.

Overnight, it seems the world has turned upside down. We are now practicing social distancing, isolating in our homes and worried about our loved ones living under different roofs. Many of us are juggling the demands of remote work and family life at home. Some of us are facing the unexpected and grim reality of unemployment and financial distress. And some of us have been sick with COVID-19, recovering alone, unable to hug loved ones for fear of getting them sick. Each day, as the death rate grows, many of us are tragically grieving the loss of loved ones.

A life-changing crisis has the ability to shake the foundations of our identity. Nothing feels normal. Without warning, we have lost control over so many aspects of our lives. We are so used to our identity and routines and we are caught off guard. People around us know what we are going through but they can't understand the internal storm we experience.

Stress accelerates and reaches new peaks every day and threatening news continues to trigger uncertainty and anxiety. In fact, according to a recent survey published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of the people living in the United States feel the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health. This is not something we anticipated and were prepared for and many of us feel lonely, helpless and are looking for much needed support in dealing with this life-changing crisis.

Nearly half of the people in the US say the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health.
Nearly half of the people in the US say the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health.

Research shows that professionally-led peer support groups can serve as an effective and critical coping tool, but when we look around we are surprised by the limited number of available group support options. Despite technological advances, the majority of emotional support groups still operate in person. Thus, the majority of support groups are often found in larger cities or more populous areas, making them inaccessible to so many who could benefit from them.

Those individuals who find support in an online group will have to compromise, as most “group type support” exists on social networks, forums, and other unstructured, outdated and unprofessional platforms. Only a few lucky ones will haphazardly find a professionally-led support group just right for them. Regrettably and unnecessarily, this leaves many individuals feeling lonely in our otherwise very connected world. The importance of connecting and finding online support with others going through similar life challenges was important before COVID-19, but we are finding it even more critical to connect in our new “social distancing” reality.

The time for a mental health revolution has come and affordable and accessible mental health care must be a fundamental part of the COVID-19 response. We are beginning to see that classic face-to-face treatment must evolve to support the demands of so many people in need of emotional support services.

As a result of COVID-19, online support has become a necessity. People are dealing with stress and anxiety related to their health, financial situations and isolation (with and without taking care of kids and managing to work at the same time) but are not able just to step outside of their home and seek support.

In this vacuum we see the rise of online services – from hotlines and online psychotherapy, to newly emerging peer support and facilitated groups platforms. We are currently experiencing acceleration of the development and adoption of remote emotional support but this is just the beginning. These services will be here to stay, long after we overcome the current pandemic.

In the past year we at 7Chairs had over 450 groups and 3,000 users on our online support group platform. We witnessed two interesting trends: 1) an online setting increases the accessibility of support to everyone, everywhere; 2) there are some unique advantages to online support that enable anonymity and increase the level of openness, which are related. This is a revolution, which will impact millions who live in remote areas or are not able to attend face-to-face sessions.

COVID-19 is forcing a change in many areas of our life. Remote/online is becoming the new standard in education, work and health. The change in the way we feel and behave is foundational and will stay with us for a long time.

There is a positive angle, we are in the middle of a revolution and, at the end of the tunnel, we will have a world where many things, including emotional support, will be more accessible for people who truly need them.

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.

For now, here are a few practical tips on strengthening your support system from our emotional support experts at 7chairs.co. It is surprising that despite how important social and emotional support is, many of us still find it an often overlooked and neglected part of our day-to-day.

1. Find and spend time with like-minded people

Social connections make us feel good, whereas loneliness and isolation can be detrimental to our mental health. Finding connection and trust with someone who shares a similar life experience can be a very empowering and supportive way of connecting. Life experiences can be uniquely complicated and expecting friends and family to truly understand the depth of our feelings is unrealistic, especially when our loved ones simply want us to find the quickest and easiest way to feel better. Joining a topic-specific support group can be an excellent way to connect and spend time with others just like you.

2. Real-time connection is important

Technology has made great strides in allowing us to connect with anyone, anywhere and at anytime and in a way that is user-friendly and readily available. Real-time connection is a game changer in allowing us to connect with others on a deeper, more personal level. When connecting with others and sharing feelings, real-time connection allows us to stay motivated and to get the feedback and support we need, when we need it.

3. Emotional support experts are key to designing impactful group support

The support of peers is just one piece of the dynamic puzzle which makes emotional support groups so effective. The other is the group facilitator. A group facilitator helps design the group’s unique culture. Having a trained and skilled group facilitator can help channel the group’s energy in impactful ways to foster the most benefit and healing to the group’s participants.

4. Share one feeling a day

Talking about and opening up about your feelings is no easy feat. But getting in the habit and sharing a feeling with someone every day is a great way to begin feeling comfortable with your emotions and the process of sharing them. Sharing feelings also reduces stress and anxiety, allowing us to feel connected and supported by those we are sharing with.

5. Ask one person a day how they feel

Empathy is understanding and recognizing emotions in others and learning how to put yourself in “another person’s shoes”. Feeling heard and understood is a basic human need and important in all relationships. To empathize with others can be an empowering and humbling experience. Further, it allows us to regulate our own emotions and allows us to have compassion for others.