• Innovation and Research
  • Department of Psychology
Features & Articles

Five Mental Health Experts on Coping with Social Distancing

A child and adult sit next to one another at a table, writing on paper.
As the world adjusts to new ways of working and living amid COVID-19, anxiety is bound to spike for some. The situation is changing daily. It touches every part of life. It’s also is affecting people very differently depending on factors like job status, food and financial security, family structures and mental health.

How can people take care of themselves during this time?

Five experts from Pitt’s Department of Psychology, School of Social Work and School of Law weigh in.

“There are so many ways you can distract yourself from anxiety,” said Lauren Hallion, assistant professor of psychology in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “The best approach is to try a lot of different approaches to find the ones that work best for you and your family.”

Be mindful of time on social media

Lauren Hallion
“Social media is wonderful for keeping us connected to loved ones and helping us understand that we are part of a larger whole, and that we are all in this fight together. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, though,” said Hallion.

“Pay attention to your mood when you’re using social media. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, put your phone away, or step away from your computer. If you’re worried about missing something important, make sure your friends, family, neighbors and so on have your phone number or email. Then, step away. Take a breath. Go for a walk. Recharge. You will feel better, and you will be able to provide better support to others,” said Hallion.  

Helping kids manage is also good for adults

Jennifer Silk
For those with children at home: “Parents should recognize that, while for some children and teens the break from the pressures of school may actually provide anxiety relief, others may have escalating worries about family members and uncertainty about the future,” said Jennifer Silk, professor of psychology.

“Parents can help to combat this by keeping media exposure limited, trying to stick to a regular daily routine as much as possible and allowing kids to stay in contact with their support networks through social media and video chat apps (within limits). It’s also a great time to help kids reconnect with family and relieve some anxiety by engaging in creative endeavors such as writing, art and music. If your child is struggling with uncontrollable fears and worries, reach out to mental health counselors in your pediatrician’s office, school or community mental health center who may be able to provide teletherapy sessions.” 

Stick to routine

Kathryn Roecklein
And routines are healthy for adults, too. “In times of uncertainty and adjustment, keeping as much the same as possible can have stabilizing and beneficial effects on mental health,” said Kathryn Roecklein, associate professor of psychology.

“Keep sleep and meal times the same, and a similar daily schedule as much as possible. Be creative. If you used to go to yoga on Tuesday, do a yoga video at home at the same time. Instead of March Madness, use Netflix Party to watch your favorite games from past seasons with friends. If you used to grab coffee with a coworker every morning, video chat with them at the same time with a cup of coffee from home.”

Spiraling? Take a page from Mister Rogers

“A great place to start is by deciding to be one of the helpers,” said Hallion.

“Are you part of a lower-risk group? Reach out to elderly and at-risk neighbors, colleagues and friends and offer to pick up groceries and other supplies so they don’t need to leave the house. Are you an organizing type with a big social network? Reach out to local nursing homes to coordinate volunteers to call or video chat with residents who aren’t allowed visitors, and who might be feeling lonely and scared. If you need technology, ask for donations. Collect and sanitize old and unused phones, iPads or laptops and install video conferencing software like Zoom or FaceTime. 

“Stuck at home with school-aged kids? They can be helpers too. Writing cards, reading to elderly and at-risk neighbors over the phone or across the yard, brainstorming with their friends about things they might be able to do for others.”

And don’t forget to protect the helpers too, reminds Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

People with mental illness: what to watch for

Christina Newhill
For people who already experience mental health problems, this time of social distancing can be especially difficult.

“People who live with mental illness and emotional challenges are particularly vulnerable to feeling frightened and having symptoms escalate in a crisis such as the current one,” said Pitt Professor of Social Work Christina Newhill. “Since social isolation is the opposite of what helps maintain wellness and recovery, one of the most important buffers for these individuals is strong social support.”

“People who are depressed already and now are unable to work due to a business closing, having no sick leave, or losing pay if they aren’t working, can fall into a dark hole,” said Newhill, author of “Interventions for Serious Mental Disorders: Working with Individuals and Their Families.”

“If they have children or other relatives to support, losing economic security can exacerbate feelings of guilt and hopelessness,” she said.

She added people who live with a psychotic disorder—in particular those with symptoms of paranoia—may experience the threat of a virus as a conspiracy that reinforces their underlying mistrust of others and feelings that others are out to harm them.

Linda Tashbook
“They may be fearful of getting tested when they get sick and socially isolating themselves can lead to symptoms worsening,” she said.

Newhill said people who live with anxiety symptoms may become even more anxious in the face of a public health threat as their already existing anxiety now is combined with genuine fear. Lastly, she says people who live with obsessive compulsive disorder, especially those who have obsessive fears of contamination, may become very frightened and obsessions and compulsions become worse as they are told to constantly wash their hands and disinfect.

Ways to help those struggling

Pitt Law librarian Linda Tashbook, author of “Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law: A Practical Handbook,” is an expert on assisting loved ones with mental illness.

For those who are depressed, she suggests a non-competitive game via phone, email, text or any other communication system. These could be composing a sentence by taking turns adding words in alphabetical order or a celebrity guessing game. “This is just a way of connecting and having a good time without calling attention to symptoms, society or anything troubling,” she said.

Five resources to recharge

Linda Tashbook offers some of her favorite distractions:

1. Museum exhibits from around the world provide escape from the space in which people may feel confined and aggravated after time away from the usual routines.

2. Mark Twain's short humorous writings provide a form of companionship and pleasant distraction.

3. Songs from Disney movies make lots of people feel calm and happy.

4. Yoga helps both mind and body by focusing thoughts and stretching limbs at the same time.

5. Guided meditation is a soothing way to focus your thoughts—here are some from Pitt's Stress Free Zone.

Tashbook suggests sending that family member a note of gratitude, thanking them for a nice thing they did for you, even if it was years ago. End your note with a suggestion they send a note to someone they can’t see right now because of the crisis—a coworker, therapist or hairdresser.

If a lack of money is causing stress, offer to help your family member compose a well-written letter of explanation to bill collectors. In a businesslike tone, suggest a realistic payment plan, and compelling facts about their circumstances.

For those with a psychosis, said Tashbook: “Avoid alarming or attempting to physically restrain the person. Don’t raise your voice or move around in ways that might make them feel threatened.”

Provide foods to them that comforted this person in better times, even if it is gelatin or animal crackers. Or play music that will remind them of a pleasant experience. Show them images of a place where they have had a good time. “It’s all about bringing positive and soothing distractions to their senses,” she said.

For a family member with anxiety, help them to envision and take steps toward achieving positive outcomes. For example, if someone was looking forward to a job interview that has been cancelled indefinitely due to the public health crisis, this might be a good time to write to the manager offering concrete ideas for being helpful to this employer between now and when the workplace resumes normal operations and is ready to hire again.

Simply lend an ear

If you have a friend, relative or co-worker who seems distressed, Newhill suggests saying something kind and asking how they are doing.

“If they feel like talking, actively listen, don’t spout platitudes but lend an empathic ear. If they don’t feel like talking, that’s okay, let them know you are here for them,” she said.

The University has resources for members of the Pitt community experiencing difficulties.

Remote counseling services are available to any Pitt community member in need. Interested faculty and staff should contact Life Solutions (1-866-647-3432); students should contact the University Counseling Center.