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Psychology experts share their tips for safeguarding your mental health during quarantine

In a move that would have been unthinkable just months ago, quarantine and social distancing have now become commonplace globally as governments make concerted efforts to fight the spiraling coronavirus outbreak. 

The measures, which have seen citizens from the U.S. to India either encouraged or enforced to stay in their homes, are deemed by medical experts as necessary in reducing the spread of the virus. But, the implications for people’s mental wellbeing cannot be overlooked.

A recent study from medical journal The Lancet notes that the psychological impact of quarantine can be great, resulting in a range of mental health concerns from anxiety and anger to sleep disturbances, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Indeed, separate studies of quarantined patients of SARS, a previous coronavirus outbreak in 2003, found between 10% and 29% suffered PTSD. 

The Lancet’s report found mental health concerns could be inflamed by stressors associated with quarantine, such as infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, lack of information, financial loss and stigma associated with contracting the disease.

That can be an issue not only for people with preexisting mental health concerns, but also those in seemingly good psychological health.

Identifying mental health concerns:

The CDC notes that people should look out for signs of distressed mental health in themselves and others. Symptoms may include: 
— Fear and worry about your own health
— Changes in sleep or eating patterns
— Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
— Worsening of chronic health problems
— Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

Recognizing the problem, the World Health Organization this week released guidance on how people can protect their mental health during the outbreak. 

“Humans are social animals,” professor Ian Hickie at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre told CNBC Make It. “Prolonged quarantine or social isolation (without compensatory methods in place) will exacerbate anxiety, depression and a sense of helplessness.”

What governments can do

The good news is some governments have stepped up to address those mental health stressors. The report notes that should be done by communicating quarantine measures effectively, with an emphasis on its altruistic justification, while minimizing the duration and ensuring sufficient supplies. 

“By addressing some of these stressors, governments can help mitigate the impact that quarantine can have on mental health,” Dr. Marcus Tan, consultant psychiatrist at Singapore-based Nobel Psychological Wellness Clinic told CNBC Make It.

However, medical experts, including Michael Friedman, associate professor at Columbia School of Social Work in New York, have called on officials to do more by creating sub-groups to assist with behavioral health.

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“For people without adequate resources, so-called ‘disruptions’ are catastrophes. The impact on their mental health will be awful,” Friedman told CNBC Make It, highlighting extended tele-medical services as one source of relief for those with existing mental or substance use disorders.

Already in the U.S., new funding rules are being introduced to make these services reimbursable. But Jayashri Kulkarni, psychiatry professor at Monash University in Melbourne, said such mental health services should be made more publicly available. 

“There is a prevailing belief that in any crisis you deal with the physical issues first, then the mental health issues much later. I challenge this view because we need the public to be robust mentally to deal with the challenges ahead,” she told CNBC Make It.

What employers can do

As well as governments, employers also have a role to play in safeguarding their employees’ health and providing reassurances at this time, Ronni Zehavi, CEO of HR platform Hibob, told CNBC Make It. 

“Transparency is key throughout times of distress, so workplaces and HR teams specifically should practice clear communication and disseminate updates regarding the virus and current protocols,” said Zehavi.

He added that companies should inform their staff of time and attendance measures so they’re “fully aware of expectations” and aren’t clocking in and out unnecessarily at home. 

What individuals can do

However, as more and more people face the prospects of several weeks of quarantine or social distancing, individuals will also have to establish their own ways of preserving their mental health at home.

CNBC Make It compiled the advice of psychology experts, as well as several health bodies, to find out their top tips:

  • Create a routine — Change out of your pajamas, shower and make a to-do of all the things you want to achieve each day to create a sense of normality and productivity.
  • Break up your day — Find tasks to break up your day and, where possible, change your environment for different activities.
  • Take care of your body — Eat healthily, get plenty of sleep and exercise daily. That could include conducting indoor workout classes, stretching and practicing meditation. 
  • Help others — If you’re not under strict isolation rules yourself, and you’re in a position to do so, find ways to support those in need by offering to run errands and collect supplies for them.
  • Stay connected — Make the most of technology and stay in touch with colleagues, friends and family via phone calls, texts, social media and video conferencing.
  • Limit media intake — Stay informed about the situation via reliable sources, but limit your news and social media intake to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  • Prepare medical supplies — The National Alliance on Mental Illness advises, where necessary, asking your doctor for extended prescription supplies to tide you over for quarantine periods.
  • Fight boredom — Make the most of catching up TV series, reading and exploring projects you have been putting off to beat boredom and stay mentally active.
  • Avoid burnout — Set strict limits to your work to avoid becoming overwhelmed and make time to unwind.
  • Focus on the positives — Amplify good news stories and honor caregivers working tirelessly to resolve the situation.
  • Take one day at a time — Try not to project too far into the future. Remember that these are temporary measures and you are not alone.

“My advice? Always the same,” said Friedman.

“Stay in contact with people — virtually — engage in activities that give you pleasure and a sense of meaning, and do what you can to help others, which is a remarkable antidote to depression.”

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