Your mental health first aid kit

Two people hugging on the beach

You’ve got a well-stocked first-aid kit for cuts and bruises – but what about for a frazzled and distressed mind? A 2019 survey published by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) found that psychological issues are the number-one reason we go to the GP*. Plus, with this year’s COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, experts are preparing for a steep rise in mental health concerns^. 

“We’ve seen stress from those working at home and balancing home-schooling demands. On top of that, the disconnect from social support systems can contribute significantly to mental strain,” says Amanda Curran, Vice President of the Australian Association of Psychologists (AAPi). If you’re struggling with any of these issues, here are some helpful strategies.

If you’re experiencing... Skyrocketing anxiety

“If you are feeling very anxious or depressed for more than two weeks, it is time to get professional help,” says Dr Kathleen O’Moore, clinical psychologist at the Black Dog Institute. 

Action plan: To soothe yourself in the moment, use Dr O’Moore’s 54321 technique. “Use your senses. What are 5 things you can see? 4 things you can feel? 3 things you can hear? 2 things you can smell? 1 thing you can taste?” This mindfulness exercise calms your nervous system. For ongoing support, myCompass (search for it on blackdoginstitute.org.au) is an online self-help program for people experiencing mild-to-moderate anxiety and depression. 

If you’re experiencing... Constant stress

The post-pandemic world is uncertain and while stress isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, if it’s left unchecked, it can lead to mental health issues.

Action plan: Make a self-care plan and stick to it. Dr O’Moore suggests tactics like staying connected with your social circle and doing physical activity. Also, do one thing daily that gives you pleasure (such as having a coffee or listening to music) and one thing that gives you a sense of achievement (like cooking a meal or tidying up).  

If you’re experiencing... Money worries

The financial repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic are set to be long-lasting, with many of us having work commitments scaled back or losing work entirely. 

Action plan: Gain control where you can. “We can’t change what is happening, but we can control how we respond. Working with a financial counsellor and obtaining all the information we possibly can provides us with knowledge, which gives us a sense of control where we feel we have none,” says Dr Karen Phillip, a counselling psychotherapist. 

If you’re experiencing... Isolation loneliness

If you’re struggling with loneliness during this time, take it seriously. A lack of social connection is as big a threat to your long-term health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to research from Brigham Young University.

Action plan: Choose a check-in buddy. “This may be your partner, housemate or a friend or colleague. Be honest about how you are coping. If you notice you are struggling, you can make a self-care plan. You can also contact your GP about accessing bulk-billed sessions with a clinical psychologist via video or phone,” says Dr O’Moore. 

If you’re experiencing... more family challenges

With routines, schooling and working locations all being uprooted, trying to find a ‘new normal’ for your family can seem like an impossible task.

Action plan: Encourage your children to connect with their social networks online, says Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, a clinical psychologist from the Black Dog Institute. “Just as adults around the world are turning to technology to stay in touch, kids need to be afforded the same ability,” she says. With younger children, she advises explaining new routines to them, so they know what to expect next. “After a bit of time you’ll be surprised by how well kids can adapt.” 

If you’re experiencing... Unhealthy coping habits 

A recent YouGov Galaxy poll showed that 70 per cent of Aussies are drinking more than usual and a third are drinking every day. Psychologists have also reported more patients turning to online gambling and prescription drug use. 

Action plan: Call your doctor. “Please speak to your GP as there are many interventions they can suggest to help. You can talk to a psychologist via telehealth who can help you cope in positive ways, and even thrive,” says Amanda. 

The 60-second check-in

This year, it’s more important than ever to keep on top of your wellbeing. Dr O’Moore recommends you do a weekly ‘feelings’ check-in with yourself. “At a set time each week, do a check-in on a scale from 0 (‘not at all’) to 10 (‘extremely’) of how stressed, anxious or low you are feeling. “It’s normal for these scores to go up and down, but if you notice they are increasing and remaining very high, then it’s time to prioritise your mental health.” 

If you would like to talk to someone about your mental health, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

*General Practice: Health of the Nation Report 2019, ^The Lancet, 15 April 2020, †Perspectives on Psychological Science, March 2015, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), 6 April 2020

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