Empty streets, empty shelves in the supermarkets, and uncertainty about the future — these things are now commonplace across the globe since the outbreak of COVID-19. With the constant barrage of media updates, health experts are worried not only of viral spread, but the pandemic’s toll on people’s mental health.
Wendy Lippe, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, said many people may experience one or both of two common phenomena during a stressful and isolated time like this. One is depersonalization, the feeling of detachment from one’s own self and thoughts, and the other is derealization, the perception that reality is strange or unreal.
“We have lots of mental problems that can emerge from isolation because without social contact, we’re in our own head,” Lippe said. “We are going to see significant increases in depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I fear suicide.”
In a 2014 study sponsored by the National Institutes of Mental Health, a relationship between media coverage exposure and the possibility of developing post-traumatic stress disorder was found, both for people with pre-existing psychiatric conditions and without.
Lippe said the coronavirus outbreak poses a “media risk” just as much as a health risk.
“The pace at which things are moving and the information changing I think is absolutely psychologically overwhelming for people and is traumatizing,” Lippe said. “You must limit your exposure to the media … because we now know from the research that it can cause PTSD in otherwise healthy people after a traumatic event.”
Carrie Landa, director of Behavioral Medicine at BU’s Student Health Services, wrote in an email that the media can be both beneficial and harmful during this time — allowing individuals to feel less alone but also inducing stress.
“All the news can be a lot to take in and make sense of. Limiting how much you watch or read can be a helpful way to feel less overwhelmed,” Landa wrote. “[But] many people have been taking advantage of social media and technology to stay connected with friends and family that they are unable to see in person.”
While people are physically apart due to social distancing, Lippe said remaining socially connected online can help alleviate the emotional impacts of isolation and bring a sense of reality back to those who feel a loss in interaction at this time.
“We need to be using these technologies in healthy ways that involve doing fun activities together,” Lippe said. “Talking with and connecting with other humans helps us stay in reality. It provides a reality check, and it helps us regulate our physiological anxiety.”
Lippe said it is important for mental health professionals to bring mindfulness practices to their patients, including after the pandemic passes when mental illness may continue to prevail. She said it is best to stay rooted in the present moment instead of panicking about the future.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of research on mindfulness practice,” Lippe said. “We could never more than now benefit from being in the moment because everybody is catastrophizing the future.”
Landa is also a co-chair of the BU Wellbeing Project, a campus initiative that offers resources to students to support their well-being. She wrote that the project encourages students to think broadly about their health, not just during difficult times, but all the time.
“Last week, The Wellbeing Project sent a memo out to all students with virtual resources that they can access from anywhere on the map,” Landa wrote. “We have also been working on some other resources that will be rolled out in the coming week.”
Among these resources is free access to the Headspace app for mindfulness & meditation. The university is also offering telehealth medical and counseling services.
Students at BU are coping with the changes in different ways with their mental challenges when practicing social distancing or quarantine.
Sarah Chan, a sophomore in Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, who is still living in on-campus housing but is self-isolated, said that while the experience of the pandemic and an empty campus has been frightening, maintaining a regular school routine and social connections have been integral to her emotional well-being.
“I have a lot of issues with anxiety and I thought I was going to go completely insane,” Chan said. “But honestly, the online classes have really helped because I talk to someone everyday and I’ve been FaceTiming my friends.”
Rachael Lynette, a graduate student in the College of Communication, is currently practicing social distancing in her apartment in Boston. As a journalist, she said it can be hard not to be always talking with people.
“It’s a little difficult because I want to be out and about, and … it’s difficult not to be near people that I have built relationships with,” Lynette said. “Especially when you’re a journalism student, you’re used to talking to people, you’re used to going to find stories and sharing those stories with people in your program. We can’t do those things now. And it’s really hard in terms of being happy.”
Staying at home, Lynette said, is a big change from normally being on the move.
“I try to do things that make me feel like I’ve gone places throughout the day because I’m used to going to several different buildings on campus and all around the city,” Lynette said. “It’s difficult to be stuck in one spot.”
Lynette said there needs to be a stronger balance in the media to keep the public informed, but not overwhelm them with fear.
“It’s good that news outlets are trying to keep us up to date with any new developments because this is something that’s changing our life and the way we live as we know it,” Lynette said. “[But] sometimes the headlines or the articles or the news, the way that it’s being presented comes out very dramatic. And when you dramatize a pandemic, it just causes fear and it does not cause education.”