COLUMN: Mental health resilience and the COVID19 crisis

By: Marybeth Fleming

I am an Occupational Therapist with over 25 years experience.

As a private occupational therapist, I am not involved in the direct patient care initiative to deal with the corona virus. As an OT I am unable to prescribe a medication, unable to set up and operate a ventilator or complete a test to determine if you are a carrier of the virus or not. However, I am qualified to speak on an issue that is likely affecting us all: mental health and wellness.

As a self-employed OT with my own business, I found myself with no work, no pay, and considerable familial stress including two 82-year-old parents living four hours away, a son located in another province, and two cancelled graduations. Needless to say, this pandemic is affecting me greatly.

Despite not being able to help on the front lines of health care, I decided to write an article on how to maintain good mental health.  I believe it has been stated lately that it is unprecedented times.  Just as I am, I imagine many others in the are experiencing additional stressors and could benefit from tips and tricks in maintaining normalcy and increasing resilience. 

It wasn’t until I spent 5 days with my 82-year-old parents, helping them to prepare to remain inside and away from others in their community for an extended period, that I realised their routine of retirement would drastically change.  I questioned how they would be able to weather the storm and maintain a sense of purpose while isolated.  How resilient could they be not only to the contagion itself but also the mental stressors resultant from the significant upset in their routine.  I wondered whether they would maintain a sense or purpose given their shrinking connection with community. For once they would not have a routine: no church, no chair yoga, no volunteering at the food bank.  All gone.  As each announcement and cancellation became apparent, I could see the impact on my parents: Increased concern, and heightened anxiety. It was at that time that I began educating my parents on the power of maintaining structure and purpose in their routine. I educated them on how this routine can positively impact their resiliency to the turmoil around them.

Resiliency can help protect you from various mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Resiliency can also help offset factors that increase the risk of mental health conditions.  Resiliency helps you bounce back from the turmoil in one’s life. Being resilient improves your ability to cope.  Below are some of the strategies I shared with my parents and I now share with you to remain resilient during this public health crisis: 

  • Stay connected.  Reach out to those whom you have a strong, positive relationships with loved ones and friends. Face time, skype, plan this connection into your routine.  Make it predictable and planned.  Something you can look forward to and rely on.
  • Maintain structure. Maintain the same wake and sleep patterns, eat lunch at lunch time supper around the same time and substitute work hours with other tasks like reading, trying to learn a new task playing music.  Consistency of a routine is critical.
  • Make every day meaningful. Do something that gives you a sense of accomplishment and purpose every day. Set measurable goals to help you look toward the future with meaning.
  • Learn from experience. Think of how you’ve coped with hardships in the past. Consider the skills and strategies that helped you through rough times. You might even write about past experiences in a journal to help you identify positive and negative behavior patterns — and guide your future behavior.
  • Remain hopeful. You can’t change the past, but you can always look toward the future. Accepting and even anticipating change makes it easier to adapt and view new challenges with less anxiety.
  • Take care of yourself. Tend to your own needs and feelings. Participate in activities and hobbies you enjoy. Include physical activity in your daily routine. Get plenty of sleep. Eat a healthy diet. Practice stress management and relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation, guided imagery, deep breathing, mindfulness or prayer.

In a time of self isolation and physical distancing I hope this information if of some use to some and of great use to many. It sure made a difference in my parent’s self isolation.

See you on the other side of this.