WHO gives advice on handling mental health toll caused by coronavirus

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A Chinese woman wears a protective mask as she looks at her phone while sitting in the Sanlitun shopping area on March 10, 2020 in Beijing, China.

Kevin Frayer

The World Health Organization acknowledged that the coronavirus is causing stress in the global population and published mental health tips that include specific advice for health-care workers, caretakers of children or older adults, and people in isolation.

The guidelines, which were released last week, were developed by WHO’s mental health department and provide considerations for the general population. WHO advised people to not attach the coronavirus to any ethnicity or nationality.

“Be empathetic to those who got affected, in and from any country, those with the disease have not done anything wrong,” the guide said.

People should not refer to those with the disease as “COVID-19 cases” or “victims,” according to the guide. Instead, WHO recommended using terms such as “people who have COVID-19” or “people who are being treated for COVID-19.”

The mental health guide also advised people to avoid consuming news that made them feel anxious or distressed and to focus on facts rather than rumors.

For health-care workers, WHO recommended managing job-related stress through positive coping methods such as physical activity and staying connected with friends and family. However, the guide said that some health workers may experience avoidance by their loved ones or community because of stigma or fear. In this scenario, the organization advised workers to maintain contact with friends and family through digital methods and to rely on work colleagues for social support.

In caring for children, WHO said that during times of stress and crisis, children are more likely to seek attachment and be demanding on their parents. The mental health guide advised speaking to children about the virus in an age-appropriate manner and keeping them close to their family. It recommended allowing children to express emotions through creative activities such as playing and drawing. Families should stick to their daily routines as much as possible, especially when in confinement, according to WHO.

Regarding older adults, WHO said that they can become more anxious, angry and agitated because of the outbreak, especially if they are in isolation or have cognitive decline/dementia. The organization’s mental health guide advised caretakers to explain the outbreak and how to reduce risk of infection in a clear, respectful and patient manner. If helpful, WHO said that caretakers can provide information to older people through writing or pictures and by helping them practice virus prevention measures like hand-washing.

For people in isolation, the mental health considerations included tips on staying connected to people by email, social media, videoconferencing and phone. WHO recommended sticking to a daily routine and engaging in healthy, relaxing activities.

The impact of the coronavirus on mental health has also been addressed on a more local level. New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot urged people to use the city’s mental health services if they are feeling anxious or depressed because of the outbreak while speaking at press briefing with Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday.

“New Yorkers are hearing every day about new cases all over the world. They are hearing about an increasing death toll from this virus. I wanted to just take a moment to say these times, it’s normal and to be anticipated that some people may be frightened, some people may be sad,” Barbot said. “And I want to remind New Yorkers that NYC Well is a resource during these times.”

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