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How to Cope with COVID-19 Mental Health Issues

23 Mar 2020
Are you paying attention to your mental health? We get art industry and psychologist insight into the most challenging time of many careers.

Wash your hands. Check.

Practice social distancing. Check.

Cover your coughs. Check.

We all know the steps to protect our physical health from COVID-19.

But what about our mental health? 

When you think about the damage being caused to New Zealanders by COVID-19, at most recent count less than 100 people have been diagnosed out of a population of 4 million. The impact on mental wellbeing throughout the country is far more severe, given the spate of job losses and dramatic falls in income - a particularly vivid reality for the arts community.


Auckland Fringe Director Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho has witnessed it first hand. “From what I’m seeing, the main response is overwhelming confusion.

 “I don’t think it’s easy to put into words because it changes not just every day, it changes every minute. There are so many different layers to it and everyone’s affected by it quite specifically and individually...our responses are so different from person to person.”

Tukiwaho’s career has straddled both the performing arts and mental health worlds. He’s carved a strong reputation as a wellbeing advocate in his role as Kaiwhakahaere Matua/Director of Taurima Vibes, which includes overseeing Atawhai, the annual Mental Health Awareness Festival.  

With an avalanche of cancellations in the past fortnight, having a full calendar of work wiped clear in a matter of days is a huge hit to your wallet and your psyche. 

Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho. Photo: Peter Meecham/NZ Herald

“We’re an industry that relies on funding, that has many, many contractors and we also rely on the fact that people come together. Those things are really difficult to mitigate because we don’t know what’s happening from day to day and every day we have to respond to what’s given to us.

“For the next 6 months, we’re all at a loss as to whether we’re able to even leave our house, let alone leave our city.”

Professional Insight

Counselling Psychologist Olivia Keene from Melbourne’s NeuroFrontiers clinic has over two decades of experience with a special focus in trauma informed care, applied neuroscience and resilience.  She’s dedicated her career to helping people through periods of anxiety, depression and uncertainty in their lives, feelings that are spreading faster than coronavirus itself right now.

"Anxiety and fear are themselves contagious and tapping into others' panic will have a detrimental effect on your own wellbeing.”

“A pandemic is an extraordinary event and one that makes us all understandably anxious,” Keene explains to The Big Idea. “ Anxiety is a fear of not being in control of a future event, so it is completely normal to fear the unknown broader social and economic effects of COVID-19, as well as the fear of immediate threats to our own and our family/friends health and safety.”

She acknowledges the challenges facing the arts community - and many others - go beyond concerns about the virus.

“We all hope that our worst fears never come true, so losing your income, your ability to do what you do well and to provide for your own survival needs is devastating. That is a reality and it is a huge and sudden loss. As human beings, we aren’t terribly good at change and a big loss that happens suddenly is traumatic for us. 

Living in the “New Norm”

So in the absence of “normal” life as we knew it, how do we adapt? 

“Create a safe, uninterrupted space and some immediate time to do things that you know relax you. If you are some form of artist, it is likely that engaging in some form of creative activity will help regulate and calm you.

“Linking and reaching out to collaborate with others will also have a positive effect on your wellbeing and assist recovery.”

Don't spend all day chasing the latest on the pandemic - it can burn you out. Photo: Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash

And if you’re spending all your new-found but unwanted spare time getting whipped into a state by all the breaking news and scaremongering - it’s time to take a step back. “Setting some boundaries between you and the pandemic will help bring a sense of safety,” Keene says. 

“Only access COVID-19 updates at certain times of the day and from sources you trust, so you are not overwhelming yourself with information. Anxiety and fear are themselves contagious and tapping into others' panic will have a detrimental effect on your own wellbeing.”

Reach Out

But it’s not about avoiding social media, it’s about how you use it, especially in this period where so many are self-isolating.

“Positive social connection is pivotal as it reminds us that we are not alone. Seek productive and empathic support from those who you feel safe, understood by and connected with. Equally, it’s okay to disconnect from people who no longer support you or who you do not feel safe around.

“Current restrictions around social distancing are particularly challenging in the current COVID-19 crisis. Direct personal messaging, phone calls where we connect to familiar voices and reach out to like-minded people are important.” 

Reach out - by any means possible. Photo: Finn on Unsplash

Tukiwaho agrees, he’s found a heightened sense of unity and camaraderie to be one of the silver linings for the Aotearoa arts industry. 

“One of the interesting things is the resounding response from the arts sector, coming together by creating specific groups and creating conversations.

“I’ve already seen three main Facebook groups (which includes Aotearoa Arts and Events during the COVID-19 Crisis) that are starting to try and look at how they can connect to each other across the country, whether that’s being a space for people to speak about how they’re feeling or to share resources with each other. I’m seeing quite a lot of people rallying to try and work it out together.”

He adds “as artists, I think isolation is a bit of a dirty word because that often feels like you’re not able to share your art, not able to uplift others. So it’s figuring out how to adapt while we’re in that space.”

Going the Distance

In traumatic times, awareness to your own, others and to collective wellbeing needs to be treated as a long game, Keene underlines. 

"As artists, I think isolation is a dirty word because that often feels like you’re not able to share your art, not able to uplift others."

“Often we will put short-term attention to self and others care and then we get caught up in new routines and our awareness drops. This is the danger period, where our mental health can slide without us noticing.  Sustained attention to your wellbeing is required, where you schedule activities into your “new normal” that you know relax and nurture you.”

Ways to improve mental health and recovery from trauma include; 

  • Nutrition (Keene recommends the Mediterranean diet for the best outcomes)

  • Setting and sticking to a regular sleep pattern and practising good sleep hygiene

  • Regular daily exercise (20-30 minutes of brisk walking)

  • Use of pre and probiotics may be helpful to settle our gut brain 

  • Exposure to natural sunlight (Vitamin D) 

  • Crafting (knitting, artwork, colouring etc)

  • Singing (especially singing in unison with others), musical instruments, connection to music with a regular beat and moving to music 

  • Writing (journaling or creative writing or writing of letters to others)

  • Yoga or dance (home YouTube or online yoga is a good option) 

  • Meditation and mindfulness (apps can be very helpful) 

  • Connecting with others

Pay it Forward

These are tough times, but you are not alone.  Photo: Tonik on Unsplash.

In these times of battling for supplies at supermarkets and boosted levels of selfishness among some, Keene has scientific evidence to support being a good human.

“Research shows that acts of kindness and helping others assists us in our own recovery and supports us to feel more connected and less alone. Daily practice of gratitude has also been found to have a significant positive effect on our mental health and connects us with the reward centres of our brain (there are some useful apps for this also).

“Finding safe places, spaces and people where you can feel calm, relaxed and supported that you can tap into regularly will improve wellbeing and support your own and our collective recovery. We are not alone in our COVID-19 experience and our human connection to each other and our ability, in these critical moments, to collaborate and support each other does matter.”

As well as connection, Tukiwaho reaffirms that the power is in knowledge.  “I have had a specific focus on how we are impacted in the arts and to look at strategies that can help mitigate stresses. 

“What I do is I ask, I don’t just search. When I have a question and it feels like I’m not able to figure it out myself, I go somewhere I know is legitimate and I ask. I find that really helpful.”

What to look out for

Keene points out there are expected anxiety and stress symptoms during a pandemic like worrying about health, hygiene and financial pressures. 

But signs to look out for if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health during this time are;

  • Frequent panic attacks 

  • Inability to function 

  • Obsessive and intensely intrusive thoughts about impending doom 

  • Overwhelming feelings of hopelessness 

  • A lack of hope that things will ever get better 

  • Emotionally and psychologically isolating yourself with a lack of any form of contact with family or friends

  • A lasting low mood with sustained disturbances of sleep (insomnia, sleeplessness or oversleeping)  

  • Sustained disturbances of food intake (lack of appetite or overeating to control emotion) 

She adds “sustained and lasting periods of being erratic or acting ‘out of character’, losing connection to a shared reality or any immediate actual or threatened harm to self or others is a concern and requires professional support.”

Where to look for help

If you or someone you know would like more information or need support, below are a list of helpful and official resources:

Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand

1737, need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time. 

Changing Minds | For better mental health in New Zealand

Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or text 4357