Mental Health and the Pandemic: What You Need to Know

mental health pandemic preparedness

One side effect of the pandemic and subsequent restrictions isn’t physical or financial – it’s mental.

Last month, The Psychiatric Times published an article about the “mental health pandemic” that came along with COVID-19.

The health and financial costs of COVID-19 have resulted in widespread feelings of helplessness and overwhelming anxiety and despair in response to circumstances over which we have little or no control. Chronic exposure to severe stress in the absence of control among countless millions constitutes a perfect storm, with severe mental health consequences on a global scale, including increased rates of depressed mood, suicide, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Individuals who were already struggling with mental illness before COVID-19 are now facing even greater challenges… Historically, increases in rates of severe mental illnesses have often followed in the aftermath of national crises. For example, during the decade of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939, the suicide rate rose from 13.9 to 17.4 per 100,000. Traumatic memories of surviving years of hardship during the Great Depression resulted in high rates of anxiety and depressed mood for generations. Although economic downturns disproportionately affected the health and well-being of the lower income segment of the population, all socioeconomic groups are negatively impacted.

A second wave of the pandemic will be driven by intense feelings of anxiety and despair in a world that is no longer predictable and safe due to high rates of unemployment and homelessness coupled with traumatic memories of surviving one’s own brush with COVID-19 or the death of a partner, parent, or loved one. (source)

Mental health issues have not be handled well in the best of times in the United States (here’s a pill for that), and this certainly isn’t the best of times. People have self-reported significant increases in feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Certain groups are having a more difficult time than others: healthcare workersmotherscollege students, and pregnant women are struggling to deal with uncertainty, fear, and loss. Alcohol sales have skyrocketed and social isolation has been linked to an increase in suicidal behaviors.

Others who are suffering are people who are at higher risk of a bad outcome if they get COVID. The elderly and those who have chronic health conditions, in particular, are dealing with stress and isolation. Their loved ones are staying away to keep them safe, but perhaps the loneliness is just as dangerous in another way. I’ve got friends who have relatives in nursing homes who haven’t been able to see family members for six months, and those patients are declining fast without the love and presence of their family members.

Were preppers ready for this?

Even among those of us who are prepared for interruptions in our day to day lives, the effect on mental health has been something many didn’t expect.

I’ve written a bit about the emotional aspects of the pandemic. I wrote an article about how, even though I’d planned for this and prepared for it, it still felt somewhat unreal to me. I also wrote about how the uncertainty of the situation was taking a toll on members of my family and my friends. The comments on both of these articles told me I was not alone in the way I felt.

Mental health, however, was the one aspect many preppers weren’t quite ready for: how do you help someone accept that the life they had planned is no longer an option, at least not now? How do you help someone accept the fact that the world will never go “back to normal?”

At the same time, there are many people in the preparedness and survival world who are dealing with the pandemic by denouncing it as a fraud or a hoax.

It could be that the government response was inappropriate, but being angry about it doesn’t change it. Just because preppers didn’t get the apocalypse they’d planned for doesn’t mean that this situation is not life-altering. We still have to cope with a whole new set of rules and norms or risk financial – or even criminal – repercussions. You can rage on the internet all you want, but it doesn’t change these facts:

All of these changes are difficult for just about anyone, and particularly so for those who disbelieve the seriousness of the virus. I recently spoke to a person in her 80s who said, “It feels like they’re taking away my whole life.”

How can you help those who are struggling with mental health issues?

Whether it’s you or someone you love, there are some things you can do to help those who are currently feeling the effects of fear, depression, anxiety, uncertainty, and isolation. Some of these things I’ve mentioned in previous articles but they bear repeating.

Make sure the person knows they are not alone. It can help to know that others are feeling the same emotions and stresses. As well, regular phone calls, chats on VOIP platforms like Skype, and socially distanced visits that take place outdoors can be a bright spot for someone who is feeling isolated.

Stop focusing on things “going back to normal.” If you keep wishing for things to go back to how they were before, I’m afraid you’re going to be in for a constant disappointment. Many aspects of our lives have changed irrevocably. One of the things that Selco talks about over and over is the importance of adapting to the new rules when your situation changes, and this one is no different.

Make plans every day. If you aren’t working, or if you’re working from home, you still need to make plans. Create a schedule for yourself. Don’t just lay there on the sofa watching Netflix and Amazon Prime all day long. It’s not good for you. Get up and get dressed (not necessarily office-dressed but don’t wear the same thing to live in and sleep in for three days in a row.) Figure out what nutrient-rich meals you’re going to make that day. Think about how you’ll exercise – will it be a walk with the dogs around the neighborhood or will you go to a nearby hiking trail? What work do you need to get accomplished? What room are you going to deep clean? Write it all down on a whiteboard or a piece of paper on the fridge so everybody knows what’s on the day’s agenda.

Don’t lay around watching television all day. Set yourself a time at which you’ll watch a movie or show online. I’ve worked from home for years, and one rule I’ve held for myself throughout it is that we don’t turn on Netflix until it’s getting dark.  That means in the summer, it’s later because we can spend time doing things outdoors during the nice weather. If you start watching while you have lunch it’s way to easy to get sucked into a series and the next thing you know, it’s bedtime and you never accomplished anything. This isn’t healthy mentally or physically so I strongly advise that if you are a television viewer or a person who likes to stream shows you limit this to evenings.

Prepare for what you can. We all know that we need to prep with the basics of food, water, seeds, tools, and the like. This doesn’t really change, regardless of what the future holds. So keep doing what you can to build up supplies and skills. A lot of things are out of our hands but you can control what is within your power. We know that things will most likely continue to deteriorate and that we could be in for a second wave. So continuing to stock up as you can (even a little bit at a time) is just as important as ever.

Don’t consume a constant diet of bad news. I spend a lot of time researching this virus, the effects on our economy, how it has decimated other parts of the world, reading the heartbreaking stories of loss. I’ve been doing this since January 20th, when it first really appeared on my radar. I do not advise it to anyone. It can be hard to see the light when you spend your time delving into the darkness. I’ve been doing this for years and can compartmentalize to some degree, but this has been a long haul. Limit the amount of time you spend reading about this outbreak and the difficulties surrounding it. Unless your job depends on you knowing every detail about COVID-19 and its effect on the world, you can stay informed reading about it for 30 minutes a day instead of 6 hours a day. Trust me when I say this: your outlook will become much brighter when your day is not filled by press conferences, the follies of incompetent government officials, and stories of suffering. Here are some tips on handling a barrage of terrible events.

Enjoy making healthful, home-cooked meals. Remember all those times you said you didn’t have time to cook? Now, if you’re currently out of work, you finally have time to cook. Don’t just heat up frozen pizza after frozen pizza! Get in that kitchen and whip up all those tasty delights you’ve wanted to make for years. Learn to bake bread if you don’t know how to do so. Cook things that take half a day to prepare. Make every tiny detail from scratch. Set the table with the nice china and give your food the showcase it deserves.

Work on some projects you never had time to do before. What projects have you always put off because you didn’t have the time? We’re currently converting a storage room in my daughter’s small apartment into a second bedroom since it looks like I’m going to be here for a while. We’ve been going through the boxes of our past and enjoying the walk down memory lane. I’m finally getting all this stuff into scrapbooks. We’re devising clever storage methods and purging things we don’t need. Soon we’ll have an adorable tiny room off the laundry room for some much needed extra space. After that, we’re building some shelves with curtains in front of them for the kitchen to put away our canned and boxed goods, hidden from prying eyes. We also each have some craft projects on the go for entertainment because productive hobbies are always a great idea.

Spend time outdoors. If your municipality allows it, spend some time outdoors. You can still be socially distant while getting fresh air. Avoid the clusters of humans and walk the challenging trails at your local hiking place. Or go early in the day while everybody else is still sleeping in. Getting some fresh air, exercise, and sunshine is healthy for both your body and your mind. If you can’t go out for a walk, at the very least, sit on your balcony or patio and read for a while.

Find something to be thankful for as often as possible. An attitude of gratitude makes tough times easier to stomach. Even now, there are things for which we can be grateful. I am spending time with my daughter and talking regularly on the phone to my other daughter. I am enjoying the blossoming of the spring flowers – always a favorite time of year for me. I am grateful that for now, I still have work online. I’m grateful my daughter is no longer working in retail during this outbreak and that she’s safely home. I’m grateful I have the time to cook delicious meals, experience my daughter’s cooking (she’s really good at it), and spend some bonus time with her. We have two dogs to walk and two cats to cuddle. Life could be much, much worse so take a moment to appreciate what you have right now.

Focus on the things you can do something about. We can’t change the government’s response to the virus. We can’t change the supply chain or the shortages or the increasing cost of just about everything. But we can control what we plant in our garden, what books we read, and the skills we learn. Here are some more thoughts about what you can change and what you can’t.

Make sure your loved ones know that they are loved. Check up on them, even if you’re feeling blue yourself. Don’t let too much time go past without a phone call or an email. Reaching out is just as good for you as it is for them.

Get professional help. If you or someone you know is truly struggling and it is beyond the help of these small steps, don’t be afraid to get professional help. Interestingly, mental health care is actually a bit easier to access now with the advent of telehealth and online counseling. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD are not things of which you should be ashamed and you don’t have to handle it alone.


Below, find some numbers and websites where you may be able to access assistance for yourself or a loved one.

  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357) – they can help you find resources for mental health crises or addiction either nearby or online
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255); En Español 1-888-628-9454
    The Lifeline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Lifeline connects callers to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals. People who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have hearing loss can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4889.
  • Crisis Text Line
    Text “HELLO” to 741741
    The Crisis Text hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the U.S. The Crisis Text Line serves anyone, in any type of crisis, connecting them with a crisis counselor who can provide support and information.
  • Veterans Crisis Line
    Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1 or text to 838255
    The Veterans Crisis Line is a free, confidential resource that connects veterans 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a trained responder. The service is available to all veterans, even if they are not registered with the VA or enrolled in VA healthcare. People who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have hearing loss can call 1-800-799-4889.
  • Disaster Distress Helpline
    Call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746

    The disaster distress helpline provides immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. The helpline is free, multilingual, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

View the NIMH 5 action steps for helping someone in emotional pain infographic to see how you can help those in distress. (source)

The takeaway from all of this

Please know that there is absolutely no shame in struggling with your mental health. Sometimes it’s a chemical imbalance – and that is completely outside of your control. Other times it’s situational – and in our current scenario, this is also outside your control. Reach out to your doctor or to one of the resources above if it is too much to handle on your own.

As well, we need to understand that this event has been SHTF-lite. While many of our lives will never be the same, due to the loss of a loved one, the loss of financial security, or the loss of a business, we aren’t dealing with an apocalyptic scenario in which resources are so limited that people are willing to kill to get the food you were planning to give your family for dinner.

We still have access to an abundance of resources where we can get help or help the people we love. It’s better to understand now how we deal with crisis scenarios and learn to prepare for it. Don’t hesitate to get the help you need and don’t hesitate to encourage the ones you love to reach out for help either. This can help us better predict how we and the ones we love will react during a more extreme scenario and we can use this time to become better prepared for the possibility of mental health effects during a future crisis.

Reprinted with permission from The Organic Prepper.