COVID-19: Coping With the Pandemic’s Toll on Mental Health

Shannon Guerin looks outside her apartment window. (Courtesy Shannon Guerin)

Shannon Guerin is a junior at University of the Arts. Her classes went virtual in March and she no longer sees her friends on a weekly basis. 

“You don’t get that kind of connection that you’re accustomed to usually,” she said. “In spite of that—having people a call away or a text away—it still feels incredibly isolating.” 

Guerin has noticed her general disposition has changed over the past several months, something she chalks up to the increasing isolation of the pandemic.

“It does really affect your mood,” she said. “Like life isn’t as exciting without the spark of your friends by your side, you know? So it’s difficult. It’s manageable at least for me, but I would be lying if I said it wouldn’t be hard.” 

For individuals like Guerin, the change in routine and social isolation of the pandemic have had lingering impacts on their mental and emotional well-being. As the winter approaches and social distancing stretches on, some are looking more closely at their coping strategies. 

“The sudden and drastic change in our routine has negatively affected both our physical and mental health,” Lijin Thomas, program director and therapist at Volunteers of America, said.

Reny Biju had been used to seeing family and her students at her church’s Sunday school, but not spending time with them regularly has been challenging. She believes the key to getting through the feelings of isolation is to stay positive and to remind herself she’s not alone. 

“Even though you are talking to people over the phone, through Zoom, through Whatsapp, through chatting, it’s always nice to see people,” she said. “When I see children’s pictures posted and all that, I realize a year has gone by. All these kids have grown.” 

Biju took particular joy from watching students develop from week to week and sharing her interest in teaching them with her family.

“Not seeing them has been the most challenging,” she said. “Not being able to go to my brother’s house has been the most challenging. Not being able to take a vacation has been challenging.” 

It helps Biju to know everyone else is going through a similar experience. 

“I try to be positive and say that it’s not just me,” she said. “It’s everyone all around me and I just have to stay calm and wait to come out of this.”  

The pandemic has forced people to slow down, and many are finally paying attention to their mental health, Thomas said. 

“We live in such a fast-paced life, it’s so much easier to ignore,” she said. “While you’re busy with work, while you’re busy with school, while you’re busy having a social life, while you’re busy doing this and that. But now, they’re more at home in quarantine, they’re more alone with their thoughts.”

Biju is the director of client services at Change Healthcare, responsible for patient billing and filing insurance claims. She usually worked three days at the office and two days at home. In March, she made the transition to working full time at home.

“I feel okay,” she said. “Considering everything that’s going on around the world, I feel blessed that I’m at home, working from home.”

Biju and her team made a lot of immediate changes in March and decided to work longer hours since they were saving on commute time. Biju’s team began processing an increasing number of COVID-19 medical claims, feeling a need to complete them quickly so patients would have the resources needed to fight the disease. 

The stress started to wear on everyone, though. 

“We ended up working long hours and feeling mentally drained at the end of the day,” Biju said. “As time went by, we all started learning how to do our work better and still have that work life balance.”

Finding a way to appreciate one’s current circumstances and live with a sense of balance is crucial for developing a resilient attitude.

“Instead of continuously worrying about the future and the uncertainty of it all and being completely overwhelmed, you have to constantly remind yourself of the things you are grateful for,” Thomas said. “Don’t take things for granted.”

It is also important to find things to look forward to. 

“I think that keeping that hope alive is very important during this time,” Thomas said. “Because keeping that hope alive—keeping that positivity alive—it helps you be able to be flexible with how you cope.”

The push to constantly work and remain connected can also be exhausting and keep people from attending to their mental and emotional needs during the pandemic, Bindu Methikalam, an associate professor of psychology at Chestnut Hill College, said.

“Overall, I think we might be seeing more folks experiencing distress, boredom, exhaustion, and frustration,” she said. “For others they might feel like they have to be on, while at virtual school and work, and they are exhausted and not as present for home responsibilities and familial and social relationships.”

Digital interaction and Zoom fatigue are also keeping people from getting the emotional and mental nourishment they need from social interactions.

“While initially people tried to utilize online platforms to stay socially connected, now people are becoming more overwhelmed with online meetings,” she said. “People might be in virtual meetings all day and need the time to check out and not sign on for another virtual meeting.” 

At the same time, many work and school obligations require individuals to stay plugged in, even when they feel drained and exhausted. 

“Our work volume has increased drastically due to school being online,” Guerin said. “That does a lot more harm than good because we are living through a very difficult time. It’s important to keep up with our studies, [but] the extra workload we’ve been assigned makes a lot  of students less likely to do the work.” 

Learning how to manage time and prioritize certain tasks over others is crucial for maintaining a sense of one’s own autonomy, which is fundamental to mental health.

“Whether you’re getting more busy work, having more to read, and having to teach yourself the material, you have to come up with a strategy,” Thomas said. ”Truly assess and understand what is required of you from that class. Set a schedule for each week of how you’re going to spend the time for each class.”

It is also important for individuals to not hold themselves to impossible standards and to be realistic about what can be accomplished during a pandemic.

“At the end of it all, I want to emphasize, be merciful to yourselves,” she said. “That’s why I said assess and find out what you need to prioritize. It’s hard to do it all.”

Thomas pointed out it is important to identify the physical spaces where one feels comfortable and safe.

“Home is our comfort zone,” she said. ”It is our safe space. Home is where we relax. It becomes harder and harder to keep that discipline in a space such as our home.” 

As work and school have moved into the home, it has become more difficult to disconnect from outside responsibilities.

“It becomes harder and harder to categorize or to organize the different responsibilities of the day because everything is happening in one place,” she said. “You have longer work days, which means increased stress levels and decreased motivation.” 

Getting outside and exercising can help a person release stress no matter their circumstances.

“I highly encourage people to take walks,” Thomas said. “Especially in New York and Philadelphia, there’s so many parks. There’s so many pathways. Go biking, go running, go walking.”

Thomas also reiterated that learning how to handle and deal with stress and emotional exhaustion does not always mean a person is completely mental healthy. Sometimes, a professional is needed. 

“Coping doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all positive,” she said. “Once you are able to identify and locate what is bothering you, how exactly this pandemic is affecting you, seek the guidance of that therapist. Maybe with the help of a therapist you’re able to help identify those things.”

-Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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