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Mental Health During a Pandemic: Tips for Tough Times

by Brett Cornforth

April 2022

Mental illness is not a topic that has been discussed much during the COVID-19 pandemic. With illness and hospitalizations, political disagreements, and increased tensions throughout society brought on by the pandemic, it is easy to overlook mental illness as an important topic. It is in fact these increasing tensions and stressors that are likely causing people to have increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. Although specific information for Big Stone County is not available, a 2020 public health survey found that in both urban and rural areas approximately 40% of respondents reported new or worsening symptoms of anxiety or depression, as compared to only 10% in similar surveys done before the pandemic. Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety and depression include sadness, anger, hopelessness, constant worry, and difficulty sleeping.

Although mental health has become a topic that people are more comfortable discussing, it is still a topic that carries stigma, and some can find it embarrassing or difficult to talk about. Not recognizing these symptoms, or choosing not to discuss mental health, can lead to further problems such as misusing alcohol, prescription drugs, or recreational drugs to cope. The 2020 survey found that there has been an increase in alcohol, tobacco, and drug misuse since the start of the pandemic.

For Big Stone County residents experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have offered some tips to help make it to the other side of the pandemic with the best mental health possible. Three specific tips focus on remaining physically active, limiting sources of negativity, and seeking out positivity in daily life. The tips also center around the fact that physical and mental health are very closely connected. It is hard for one to exist without the other.

The first tip for supporting mental wellness actually focuses on physical health. Why? Just as it can be difficult to find motivation to exercise and perform other healthy behaviors, it can be difficult to block out feelings of worry, sadness, and negative body image if physical health begins to fail, body weight increases, and overall energy decreases. These intrusive thoughts can further lead to trouble sleeping and decreased productivity throughout the day. To avoid these issues, experts suggest that any amount of physical exercise can start to decrease symptoms, starting with as little as 10 minutes of walking or riding a bicycle. With winter further limiting the safety of prolonged outdoor exercise for the county’s residents, it takes a bit of creativity to stay physically fit. For people with limited access to dedicated exercise spaces, even walking in apartment hallways, in homes with large rooms, or from room to room is a good way to get steps in. Walking up and down flights of stairs is also a good option where available.

The second tip is to escape from the constant flow of negativity that has become so commonplace during the pandemic. Although it is important to stay up to date on current events, spending too much time watching the news can make it seem like the world is ending and that hope is lost. The same can be said for social media. Even though it can be a platform for people to connect with one another and share positive experiences, social media can be a significant source of stress. Social media can be a source of unfiltered news links, political disagreements, and strong opinions which can quickly spiral into arguments filled with abusive language and other sources of negativity. To decrease exposure to these sources of negativity, mental health experts suggest turning off electronic devices during meals, group activities, and for 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Experts also suggest that for some people who are very sensitive to negativity, complete avoidance might be needed.

Finally, and the opposite of the second tip, the third tip is to intentionally look for things that can bring positivity into daily life. Continuing to pursue hobbies that have brought joy in the past can bring a sense of normalcy and keep the mind busy. Maintaining relationships with friends and loved ones can provide much needed stability to life as well as ward off feelings of loneliness. Specifically looking for local and national feel-good stories can renew some faith in humanity, fight off feelings of hopelessness, and cancel out some negativity brought in by other sources.

Mental health can seem like a very difficult topic to tackle, and up until recently it has been a topic that does not get talked about nearly enough. Mental health is not something that should be ignored or brushed under the carpet. As the nationwide survey illustrated, the pandemic has affected the mental health of people all throughout society, not just individuals who had mental health problems to begin with. This means that there are people having to address mental health as a serious issue for perhaps the first time, and people who were already struggling with mental health issues that have finally been pushed over the edge and are struggling to cope. Experts suggest that keeping physically active, limiting negativity, and increasing positivity can begin the journey to improving mental health. For those in Big Stone County and the surrounding areas that find that these tips are not enough during these trying times, they should reach out to local physical and mental healthcare providers for guidance, direction, and care.

About the Author

Brett Cornforth is a third-year medical student at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. He was selected as the Ortonville participant for the school's ROME program, or Rural Opportunities in Medical Education. Because the program includes teaching student doctors about the importance of how rural newspapers can deliver health information, he has written this column for his ROME community. The information is not for diagnosis or treatment and should not be used in place of previous medical advice provided by a licensed practitioner.