covid-19 mental health

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The time around the holidays can be difficult for everyone. Challenges like holiday stress or seasonal affective disorder affect many people, whether they do or don’t have a diagnosed mental health condition.

The 2020 holiday season may bring a new set of emotional challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With increased efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, the holidays look different this year. And that could cause a different emotional burden for people.

“It’s a very unusual time, and it’s a very scary time,” says Scott Lewis, PhD, program director at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. “People are exhibiting normal reactions to abnormal times. Unfortunately, we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, and that’s challenging as well.”

COVID-19 and Mental Health

COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has resulted in millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States.

In addition to the physical toll, COVID-19 also can cause a mental burden.

You may feel anxiety or depression over factors like your health and the health of your loved ones or socioeconomic stressors like unemployment, or from consuming too much pandemic media coverage. Substance use has increased during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even preventive efforts like social distancing can have a mental health impact. While avoiding large crowds and staying at home may limit the risk of coronavirus spread, it may create a feeling of isolation.

“People don’t have the opportunity to be out and about, getting exercise, or meeting up with different people as a way to help manage their symptoms,” says Dr. Lewis. “More people come in to see me saying their moods, their symptoms, are exacerbated because they don’t have access to tools they normally use to feel better.”

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Holiday Mental Health Challenges During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic and typical holiday mental health burdens could pose a difficult combination for some people.

COVID-19 preventive efforts may limit traditional holiday festivities. Gathering with loved ones to celebrate poses a higher risk of COVID-19 spread, as does travel.

Some traditional coping mechanisms are more difficult in the late fall and winter, either because of the season or the pandemic. Colder weather and shorter daylight hours may make it difficult to get outside and exercise. It also might be more difficult to meet up with loved ones or to seek in-person mental health care.

Those factors could increase feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, stress, and more this holiday season.

“You may be feeling more stressed and anxious during the holidays because you can’t connect with your family, or you’re worried about some elderly family members’ health,” says Dr. Lewis. “You may feel that social isolation even more.”

Coping With Holiday Mental Health Challenges During COVID-19

Whether or not you have a diagnosed mental health condition, the holidays can be stressful. And the COVID-19 pandemic may increase the challenges you face.

But Dr. Lewis says there are ways to ease your mental health burdens during the holidays.

1. Manage your expectations

Many people place undue stress on themselves by expecting too much from the holidays, says Dr. Lewis.

It might be even harder to meet high expectations this holiday season because of the challenges COVID-19 poses. Dr. Lewis says managing your expectation level — recognizing that you may not be able to celebrate the way you normally would — can be valuable.

“This year, we have to find ways to celebrate together in a different manner,” says Dr. Lewis. “And that’s OK. It’s just different. It doesn’t make it worse. We just have to adapt to the times.”

2. Keep up healthy habits

When facing mental health challenges, it’s important not to ignore your physical health. Diet, exercise, and sleep are important during the holidays. Don’t use food, alcohol, or drugs as a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, or depression.

Dr. Lewis recommends following a healthy diet, keeping up with regular exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep. If you can exercise outdoors, do it. If not, get creative with indoor exercises like yoga or video routines. He also suggests mindfulness meditation as a way to relieve stress or anxiety.

3. Get creative with technology

You may not be able to see your loved ones in person. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to talk to them.

Phone or video calls with loved ones could be a substitute for in-person celebrations this year, says Dr. Lewis. You can even get creative with virtual activities like watching movies together, having holiday sing-a-longs, or putting on a holiday play.

“We have to find a way to reach out to family,” says Dr. Lewis. “And maybe that is through the computer.”

4. Talk to someone

Talking through your problems with someone — whether it’s a loved one or a licensed professional —often can be beneficial. No problem is too small to seek help.

“Sometimes it’s just having someone allow you to feel that and normalize the stress and anxiety you have,” says Dr. Lewis. “That in itself can be a stress reliever.”

Mental Health Care at UPMC

It may not be possible for you to manage stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges alone. Sometimes you need professional help.

If that’s the case, says Dr. Lewis, “it’s absolutely important to seek professional help. We’re here to help people through these difficult times.”

If you or someone you know are dealing with mental health issues during the holidays — or at any time — UPMC Behavioral Health Services has several care options. If you’re experiencing a mental health emergency, call 911.

  • UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital: Located in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital offers inpatient, outpatient, and emergency care for many conditions. For more information, call 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.
  • resolve Crisis Services: If you’re dealing with a mental health crisis — big or small — resolve Crisis Services can help. This 24-hour, 365-day crisis service is free to residents of Allegheny County. Call resolve’s 24-hour hotline at 1-888-796-8226 or visit the walk-in clinic in Pittsburgh’s East End neighborhood. resolve also has a mobile crisis team that can travel anywhere in Allegheny County to provide face-to-face help.

In addition to UPMC’s resources, you can call national hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (1-800-662-4357).

It’s important to recognize that you’re not alone, says Dr. Lewis.

“It’s OK to feel the sadness and grief, not only for this time of year, but also because of the pandemic and not being able to connect,” says Dr. Lewis. “We don’t have to force ourselves to be happy. It’s OK to feel saddened by the situation. I think it’s very normal. Allow yourself that but, at the same time, be sure to reach out in some way.”

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. Link

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.