Social Distance Learning

Global health experts share tips on how to stay mentally healthy during this pandemic

A father plays with his daughter backlit by sunset, seen through the window.
Image: Getty/ridvan_celik

This article is part of Harvard Medical School’s continuing coverage of medicine, biomedical research, medical education and policy related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the disease COVID-19.

Giuseppe Raviola wants to make sure that people following recommended guidelines to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus don't also sacrifice their mental health and well-being.

Raviola, director of the Harvard Medical School Program in Global Mental Health and Social Change and director of mental health at Partners In Health, said, “As we enter this new and unprecedented phase of the pandemic, we are inundated with guidelines about how to keep ourselves and our families healthy and virus-free.”

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Yet social distancing, a key element of all plans to slow the outbreak, poses unprecedented challenges to our mental and emotional well-being and requires consideration, Raviola said. He noted that that these risks may be especially high for children, who are suddenly cut off from school and friends.

“How do we as individuals and parents cope without driving ourselves and each other crazy?” Raviola asked. “It’s a question that mental health professionals such as myself are being asked multiple times a day and that urgently needs addressing.”

Raviola, who is also HMS assistant professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, consulted with colleagues at Partners In Health, who have experience dealing with stressful situations from their work fighting AIDS, cholera, Ebola and tuberculosis and building comprehensive health systems in challenging circumstances. He has put together a list of key practices to maintain good mental and emotional health for those asked to stay at home to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Top ten practices:

·       Social distancing does not mean emotional distancing. Use technology to connect widely

·       Set clear routines and schedules, seven days a week, at home, but don’t go overboard

·       Exercise and physical activity, daily if possible.

·       Learning and intellectual engagement—books, reading, limited internet

·       Positive family time—working to counter negativity

·       Alone time, outside if possible, but inside too; but remember, don’t isolate

·       Focused meditation and relaxation

·       Remember the things that you really enjoy doing that you can do in this situation, and find a way to do them

·       Limit exposure to TV and internet news; choose small windows and then find ways to cleanse yourself of it

·       Bathe daily, if possible, to reinforce the feeling of cleanliness


In addition to these practices, Raviola shared the following suggestions for ways to reframe stressful thoughts and points of view.


Six things to remember

·       Things will get better eventually, and back to normal; the world is not collapsing (don’t go “catastrophic”)

·       Most people are good, and people are going to persevere and help each other

·       You’re tough, you’ve overcome challenges before; this is a new one

·       This is a particularly strange and unprecedented situation; humor helps once in a while

·       If having obsessive or compulsive thoughts related to the virus, or the broader uncertainty, wash your hands once, and then remind yourself that anxiety is normal in this scenario. But the mind also can also play tricks on us. Try to breathe and move the internal discussion on.

·       Live in the moment, think about today, less about the next three days, even less about next week; limit thinking about the next few months or years, for now.

Adapted from an article in the Partners In Health news section.