How to Support Someone's Mental Health During COVID-19

Health & Wellness

May 21, 2020

You sense someone is struggling. Maybe in new ways. Maybe you know why – a job loss or illness or death in the family. Or they’ve confided in you.

Now that many have been around members in their household for extended time, you may just sense something is different. New routines. Lack of energy. Changes in behavior.

How can you help that person? What are the best ways to intervene? How do you start the conversation? Where do you go for help?

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, about 1 in 5 Americans were affected by anxiety. Depression was the leading cause of disability. But now more than ever, there’s a heightened sense of awareness to the mental health concerns many may face due to the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

If you sense someone needs help, there are several ways you can help – and many of them are easy. IU Health Behavior Health licensed therapists Lindsay Potts and Trisha Palencer offered advice for how to help if you have mental health concerns for a loved one.

Open & Honest

If you’ve been living with someone in this state of quarantine for two months, having open lines of communication is the best way to broach the topic of mental health.

“Dancing around topics and doing this outskirts, indirect communication makes communication more difficult,” said Palencer, the director of the Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center at IU Health West Hospital in Avon. “We don’t really know what we’re asking, we can’t get on the same page. We need to be direct and compassionate with people.”

It also takes a measure of empathy – understanding where that person is coming from. We all have different responses to stress. Are you aware of how that person responds to stress? What do their anxieties, fears, sadness, and disappointments look like?

If you can understand and talk about what’s normal, then you’ll also be able to get a sense of what’s not normal, too.

“Stress responses can look different in different people,” said Potts, manager of outpatient behavioral health services in Bloomington. “Have conversations outside of conflict about how you are coping, how you are taking care of yourself, how you are supporting one another.”

Be Watchful

You may be in a good mental state – and know what signs to watch for in yourself when things are getting out of whack. But those same things you’d watch for in yourself are what you can look out for in others:

  • Are they not getting enough sleep?
  • Are they not taking care of themselves?
  • Are they not taking care of basic needs?

That really allows us to watch out for each other and care for each other – and keep open those lines of communication.

“Now that we’re closer together, you get to know each other in a different way, and what that means is that there’s an inner level of intimacy,” Potts said. “That really is a healthy thing to do, and I would encourage family units to do that as much as possible throughout this to process this and work collaboratively to figure out how everyone is able to take care of themselves.”

And do keep an eye on your own mental and physical health as well. You should be careful not to let someone else’s concerns take over your life as well. For example, Potts said, if a loved one is not taking care of themselves then you should have an emotional boundary where that doesn’t mean you aren’t able to take care of yourself as well.

“When you’re with someone else and they are responding in a way and they are causing you stress, then you may need to step away. Their stress may not need to impact your own response,” Potts said.

When Someone Isn’t Speaking Up

If you’re having conversations that aren’t leading anywhere productive, it may be difficult to feel like you’re helping. Everybody responds to stress differently, and some people shut down and some “curl into a ball want to disappear”, Potts said.

Or, maybe the more common response, the all too familiar: “I’m fine”. There are ways we can help break through that barrier, Palencer said.

“We all get the case of the “I’m fines” and I think that for family members and loved ones, we can help normalize the idea that they don’t have to be OK,” Potts said.

She said reminding people that they don’t have to be “fine” is a good first step. If they are willing to listen, you can invite them in to tell them even more:

“In fact, not only do you not have to be fine, in the event that you’re not, we can be there, we can be supportive, we can listen and help you and can help you find the help you need,” Palencer said.

Offer the Help that’s Needed

Potts and Palencer offered practical guidance for helping someone who you sense is struggling with a mental health concern.

For Potts, she said it’s being with that person with unconditional positive regard – being with that person in the way they are currently expressing. That helps ease the burden from both of you – pressure to offer solutions from you and pressure to get help from the person you are trying to help.

“One of the things that can be challenging is that sometimes family members can feel that someone needs help more than they think they need help,” Potts said. “Not being a pressure and giving an ultimatum can make a situation worse and increase conflict. This allows people to come to their own solution on their own time in a safe space in their own home.”

For Palencer, it’s super practical: if someone’s having a rough time with their mental health, then treat that person like they are having a rough time with the flu or another sickness. Can you make them a meal? Can you bring them a blanket? Can you sit with them in the same space?

“They don’t have to be OK, and I can just be there and be connected to them,” Palencer said.

And they both agreed: When the time comes, you can be there to offer additional support when it’s needed.

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