Living with the pandemic if you already have mental health problems

The COVID-19 pandemic may be especially challenging for those of us with mental health problems – wherever we are on that journey.

If we are currently struggling, we may find it harder to get support, and if we manage well most of the time, it might be harder to follow our usual ways of coping. It’s important to be aware of how we are doing on a daily and weekly basis. Early recognition of any bumps can make getting back on track easier.

Many of us are coping well and using skills we’ve learned through experience and support to manage through this crisis. 

It’s important that we don’t assume that everyone with mental health issues is vulnerable or unable to cope, which can be damaging and lean into stigma.

If you are finding it hard to cope right now, then please visit this page to find a list of helplines and resources. 

What steps could we try to take to look after our mental health at the moment?

There are lots of tips being shared many of which are useful for those of us with mental health problems. That said, some suggestions can also seem overwhelming or out of reach - financially or socially. Things like taking on new hobbies, cooking new things or paying for expensive deliveries or subscriptions. 

s advice might seem more aimed at people who don’t normally struggle with their mental health, so might seem simple, or just not intended for us. The ideas below are intended to give a start, and for you to consider, try out and ultimately, take or leave according to what you find works for you.

Whatever we can manage, and that feels OK, is good enough.

1. Try to do the basics when you can

Eating, sleeping, moving (either inside or outside) and making sure we keep hydrated are the building blocks of life, and are important to our mental health – but they can sometimes seem overwhelming. 

If you can keep your routine, or establish a new one, it may be easier to keep well. This is not easy to do. Writing down a new routine may help at first.

2. Try to accept that you are worthy of support

It’s hard to ask for help and it can be hard to believe that you are worthy of people’s time. It’s can also be hard to believe that you have things to offer. You are worthy of support.

Try to be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is always important – though it may be hard, especially when you’re first trying to make it a habit.

Health services such as your GP and pharmacy are still operating. Even under pressure, they are still there to help, whether it’s with your mental or physical health.

Don’t suffer in silence or ignore early warning signs – responding to them might prevent a crisis.

3. Try to make a plan with your support team and professionals

Mental health staff face the same pressures as other NHS teams, with staff absence and new ways of working in the pandemic. Even so, they are still there. 

Try to ask for what you need. If you can. If you don’t feel able to explain difficulties, see if a friend or family member can help explain, or try writing it down. 

If things do need to change and that is difficult for you, give the new way a chance – it might be OK. 

Speak to your pharmacist or GP about prescriptions and blood tests. If you have to speak with other agencies, like the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) or your landlord or banks, remember you can get advice about your rights from a range of sources.

4. Try to build a circle of support

A circle of support is a group of people and tools that you gather around you for when times are hard. This may be practical or emotional support (like someone to look after you or your pet if you are unwell, someone who could do your shopping if you feel unable to, or a friend to send you a text each morning to check you are up).

A circle of support can be in person or via digital means.

5. Try to build and maintain connections, even when it seems hard

Most of us need a balance of time on our own and being with others. Being forced to be on our own can be damaging, and connection with other people is so important to our mental health.

Being able to connect with people online or on the phone can be really helpful - but also overwhelming or confusing. It can take time to figure out how different apps or online tools work and which ones are right for you (if any). 

Perhaps you’ve always known the value of online communities and are able to rely on peer support from online friends. If you have skills you could share, then consider doing that if you can.

6. Try to lean on your experiences of coping in the past

If you’ve experienced mental health issues, there’s a chance you’ve gone through periods where you’ve been isolated, withdrawn or challenged. You might have surprised yourself in the past with what you’ve been able to cope with, even when it seemed too awful to contemplate. It’s time to remember those times and use that learning.

You may have a plan, or even a box of things you know help when things are hard. If you don’t and are feeling well at the moment, then this might be a good time to gather some things together. 

You could include relaxation tracks or breathing exercises, diversions like colouring, music or video games, or doing something creative. You could even build a den or safe space in your home. There are now a lot of free online events – theatre, virtual tours of museums and similar – so you may find something that interests you. 

Try to do something nice for yourself every day and celebrate small wins – even if it’s as simple as washing your hair or going outside for a walk. 

7. Try to express yourself – to others and in private

It can be hard to express the things we feel when times are hard. Getting it out can be helpful – whether we share or not. You could keep a private journal or blog, carry a notebook or use social media or creative arts. 

It’s great if you have people you can confide in but even if you don’t, writing things down to revisit yourself can really help. Some people find it helps to keep a note of things they are grateful for, or things they’ve learned, however small.

If you use social media or blogs, make sure you remember to check your privacy settings and think through how comfortable you are about sharing before you post. 

8. Try to limit your exposure to the news

The news is often all about coronavirus and this may add to our worries or rumination, where we chew over every thought in our heads. 

It might help to try just one news bulletin a day, then switch off and do other things. . 

9. Try to be in the moment

Many of us have things in our past which affect the way we live our lives now. Many of us also worry about how the future will pan out. Both are important – in terms of understanding our lives and planning – but while coronavirus restrictions are in place, it may be helpful to try and live in the present. Take it one day at a time, if you can.

That means respecting the past and what it means, but passing each minute, hour and day as a new opportunity.

If we can work to forgive ourselves and take care of ourselves – it will help. The only way is through.

10. Try to be a part of your community and help, if you are able

If you are feeling well, there may be things you can do in the community to help out - especially if you are at home. Walking neighbourhood dogs, helping to deliver food or volunteering for local community initiatives can be a great way to give back. 

This piece was authored by Mental Health Foundation staff with lived experience of distress and improved by the input of peers across the organisation. We are particularly grateful for the advice of external reviewers – in particular the valuable suggestions made by Akiko Hart, Chief Executive of NSUN. NSUN are hosting a range of blogs and resources about living with distress during the pandemic. 
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