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How to Get Mental Health Help During a Pandemic

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a physical illness, but its mental and emotional toll is great. Living through a pandemic is incredibly stressful, especially for people who struggle with anxiety and depression.

This threat to our mental health is emerging just as we are unable to visit a therapist’s office because of stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus.

But that doesn’t mean mental health help is unavailable, says UNC clinical psychologist Crystal Schiller, PhD, and it’s important to prioritize good mental health alongside virus prevention measures.

“Sometimes anxiety and depression get in the way of taking care of ourselves,” she says. “It’s really important to manage stress, both to feel better and so we can make good decisions about our physical health.”

If your mood is getting consistently worse, your worries are overwhelming you, you’re starting to have trouble with daily functioning or you’re engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking too much alcohol, help is available, Dr. Schiller says.

Mental Health Apps Can Be a Starting Point

If you want to try an intermediate step before starting therapy, apps might be right for you. They tend to be less expensive than therapy, and you can begin immediately. Several mental health apps are available through the Apple App Store and Google Play. Some are free, some cost money and others are free in basic form while requiring a fee for additional features. Mental health apps tend to fall into two main buckets:

  1. Mindfulness and meditation apps: These apps don’t provide treatment, but they can help reduce anxiety. Dr. Schiller recommends:
  • Buddhify: Features traditional meditations and on-the-go mobile practices
  • Insight Timer: Tens of thousands of free guided meditations; type in a keyword such as “relaxation” or “sleep”
  • Headspace: Structured courses, short meditations and mindfulness for daily activities (free for health care workers through 2020)
  • Calm: Guided meditation and sleep exercises, plus music and calming scenes
  1. Mental health treatment apps: These apps can be an intermediate step before seeing a therapist, Dr. Schiller says.
  • Woebot: Do-it-yourself cognitive behavioral therapy created by psychologists
  • MoodTools: Research-backed help for depression
  • Breathe2Relax: Free breathing techniques to manage anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Panic Relief: Coping tools for panic attacks
  • CBT-i Coach: Cognitive behavioral therapy for people struggling with insomnia

Once you begin using an app, pay attention to how it makes you feel, Dr. Schiller says. Record your mood (1 for worst and 10 for best) at least daily or after each time you use the app. If your mood is getting worse, try something else or reach out to a mental health professional.

See Your Therapist — or Find a New One — Virtually

If you already have a therapist, contact him or her and ask if a virtual visit is possible, either on webcam or over the phone, Dr. Schiller says. Some people find actually seeing the therapist is helpful, but you also can do a simple phone call.

It’s also possible to start with a new therapist during this time. If you have insurance, ask for a list of in-network providers. Then look at their websites to determine whose style you like and if they do telehealth and cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is most effective for finding relief from anxiety and depression, Dr. Schiller says.

The silver lining of the COVID-19 crisis is that most insurance providers, including Medicaid, are covering telehealth therapy, which wasn’t typically the case before, Dr. Schiller says. And because it’s virtual, you can expand your search to anyone in your state; the therapist doesn’t need to be a short drive away.

Join a Virtual Support Group

Virtual support groups for mental health are tricky. The best ones can be a haven of empathy and judgment-free camaraderie, but some can make mental health problems worse, Dr. Schiller says.

“Anything that helps you feel more connected to other people, especially other people going through something similar to you, can be really helpful,” Dr. Schiller says. “But anxiety can also become like a contagion, with people building on one another’s worry.”

Facebook has many private support groups, though it is a free-for-all in terms of quality. Mental health organizations such as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Postpartum Support International and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also host and recommend support groups, many of which have gone virtual because of COVID-19.

Dr. Schiller recommends reviewing a group’s ground rules to make sure it’s in step with what you’re looking for, such as language like “a positive and supportive environment.” As with apps, pay attention to how you’re feeling as you interact with the group, and if your mood worsens, try something else.

“The benefit of reaching out right now is that everyone is feeling anxious,” Dr. Schiller says. “Everyone is going through similar things right now—it makes sense to feel anxious, but you don’t have to feel anxious alone. Help is available.”


 For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.