Self-Care in a Public Health Crisis: Mental Health Tips and Tools

By: Clare Bruce

In times of crisis we often struggle with feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, or hopelessness. There are many things you can do to care for yourself and others. The following expert mental health tips are from Max Schneider, a trauma counselling specialist and trainer at the Australian Institute of Family Counselling (AIFC)*, adapted from an interview given during the January 2020 bushfires.

[Note: If you need immediate crisis support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or see our full list at the end of this article]

1. First, Accept That You’re a Little Afraid!

It’s very normal to feel afraid in times of great uncertainty.

One of the most important steps for your mental health is simply accepting the fact that you’re struggling, rather than trying to fight or bury your feelings. While we don’t have to live our lives dictated to by our fears, it is not a sign of weakness or a sin to experience fear itself. Encourage others to acknowledge their emotions and fears, too. Help them to get it off their chest.

2. Give Names to Your Emotions

Naming or describing your emotions is an important step in moving through them.

Are you feeling low? Afraid? Overwhelmed? Hopeless? Sad? Numb? Work through your feelings by talking to a friend, writing in a notebook, or in prayer. Labelling your feelings helps you to untangle and process them in a healthy way.

3. Limit How Much Media You Consume

In a national crisis, it’s easy to become overly obsessed with following all the latest news and media which an affect your mental health.

Set yourself a time limit – perhaps 30 minutes or an hour, for example – to catch up with the headlines and important information. Then, switch off the TV, put your phone down, and move to a different activity, like chores, reading, cooking or spending screen-free time with family or friends.

hand holding a mobile phone

4. Try and Maintain Any Normal Routines You Can

While the COVID-19 Pandemic has affected many of our daily activities, you can help foster a sense of normality or ‘new normal’ by having routines.

Get creative. For example, if your children’s activities have been cancelled, replace them with something different, such as a daily walk around the block, an afternoon drink-and-snack time, a daily game, cooking together once a week, colouring together, or a play in the park. If you are watching a lot of entertainment, choose a show you watch together with friends or family, rather than alone. If you are working from home, find new ways to interact with others – a daily coffee at the local coffee shop, even just to chat to the barista, could be an important investment in your mental health.

5. Practice Relaxation, Mindfulness or Meditation

Focused relaxation, deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation are proven to be powerful in combating anxiety, depression and stress and boosting your mental health.

It doesn’t have to be complicated or spiritual, and you don’t need to be an ‘expert’. Just 10 minutes of simple deep breathing, focusing on your breath, can significantly reduce your stress levels. Oxygen is nature’s tranquiliser! If you’re a person of faith, you can incorporate prayer or worship into your mindfulness or meditation, too. There are many helpful apps for guided mindfulness, meditation and devotion, such as Smiling Mind, Headspace, and Soultime.

Calming, mindful activities will also help calm your soul and clear your head. Try reading, swimming, a cup of tea on the verandah, a jigsaw puzzle, playing with your pets, prayer, listening to calming music or worship music, or a simple evening stroll.

6. Know That You Won’t Always Feel This Way

Max’s advice to those who are struggling is to remember: “Whilst it’s really traumatic and difficult and challenging now, there is always hope.”

It’s a simple truth, but a powerful one: know that tough times and difficult emotions don’t last forever, especially when we take steps to care for ourselves, and reach out for support.

7. Stay In Touch With Friends, Family and Colleagues

In any crisis, it’s not unusual to feel disconnected from others – and now that many of our social activities are suspended and many workers are isolated to their homes, it will be harder to feel a sense of community.

This can lead to feelings of meaninglessness or pessimism. Finding ways to connect with people will help you to break the ‘cave’ mentality.

young woman on the phone

Use technology, but make it as personal as possible. Instead of just commenting on a social media post, or texting, call your friend on the phone, Zoom or FaceTime so you can hear and see each other. Instead of just saying, “we should catch up sometime”, ask, “how about lunch on Thursday?” Invite your neighbour for a cup of tea instead of just waving hello. Be proactive. Connection will lift your spirits and theirs, too.

8. Stay Connected to Your Community Groups

Community connection is an important part of getting through a difficult time. Don’t feel that you are a ‘burden’. Many people are eager to be a support.

“A sense of community and support can be as helpful and as effective as one on one therapy or counselling,” says Max.

Even though social distancing rules have put a stop to many community activities such as sport, church or cultural gatherings, you can stay connected via social media, WhatsApp, and getting together in small groups or one-on-one with friends from those groups. These will be important touchstones in maintaining a sense of connectedness and better state of mental health.

9. Make Small Choices

Times of crisis are often very disempowering, and in the current pandemic, many people are feeling disempowered as their choices are being taken away from them.

One small but effective strategy that professionals often use, is to help provide choices for people who are struggling, to give them a sense of agency.

If you’re spending time with a loved one who is struggling, it can help to give them simple decisions to make, such as letting them choose the meal, the venue, or the activity.

10. Talk to Each Other… But Be Sensitive

If someone you know is going through a particularly hard time, for example having lost a loved one, or being made redundant, encourage them to talk – but be sensitive.

“It’s really important that we don’t push [people to talk] if they aren’t ready to talk about it there and then,” said Max. “But its’ also not helpful to avoid asking because of our own discomfort. Some people are ready to talk and process things straight away, others will take their time. What’s really important is that we’re open and we provide the safe space for people to come to us when they need to.”

Try saying something like: “I’m here to listen, when and if you are ready.”

two men talking together

11. Consider Counselling

If you or a loved one needs a little more support than friends and family can give, don’t hesitate to seek professional counselling.

There are many different avenues, including faith-based or charity-based counselling services, psychologists, chaplains and school counsellors, and professional organisations like Lifeline, Headspace, Beyond Blue, and SANE. Help people overcome their fears and concerns by giving them options to see what they are most comfortable with.

12. Know the Signs of Post Traumatic Stress, and Get Support

Over the coming weeks, if someone you love is suffering ongoing post traumatic stress, it is time to get some professional help, says Max.

Some of the following symptoms may be signs of Post Traumatic Stress:

  • Avoiding people, places, news or events that remind them of their trauma or grief
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Sleeplessness
  • Bottling up their experience and avoiding conversation about it
  • Wanting to talk about their experience excessively

While friends and family are a good first port of call for support, it’s okay to set a limit if your loved one’s distress is overwhelming you. Professional help will provide a buffer so that you can care for yourself, too.

Help for Emotional and Mental Health

24-Hour Support Services in Australia
Kids Helpline – Australia’s only free, 24-hour counselling service especially for children and young people aged between 5 and 25. | | 1800 55 1800 | 24 hours, 7 days

Beyond Blue – Support hotline for anyone feeling anxious or depressed. | | 1300 22 46 26 | 24 hours, 7 days

Lifeline – For anyone having a personal crisis, struggling emotionally or feeling distressed or suicidal. | | 13 11 14 | 24 hours, 7 days

Suicide Call Back Service – Australia’s 24-hour hotline, supporting anyone feeling suicidal. Call if you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts. | 1300 659 467 | 24 hours, 7 days

MensLine Australia – A professional phone and internet support and info service for Australian men with emotional or relationship concerns. | 1300 78 99 78 | 24 hours, 7 days

Other Support Services

MindSpot – A free support service helping people with anxiety, worry, low mood or depression. Also gives online assessment and treatment for anxiety and depression. (Not an emergency or callback service.) | | 1800 61 44 34 AEST, 8am-8pm (Mon-Fri), 8am-6pm (Sat)

eheadspace – Mental health and wellbeing support, info and services for young people aged 12 to 25 and their families. | | 1800 650 890 | 9am-1am AEST, 7 days a week

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

About the Author: Clare is a digital journalist for the Broadcast Industry.