Wash your hands often. Avoid close contact. Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others. Cover coughs and sneezes. Clean and disinfect.
Many of us should now be familiar with the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control on how to protect our bodies from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). However, as we adapt at varying degrees to a modified lifestyle in order to create barriers to this “invisible enemy”, how are we, especially as women, protecting our mental health? Our emotional, psychological, and social well-being can often come second to securing food, shelter, work, and taking care of others. Social and self-stigmatization adds a real and debilitating layer, rendering threats to mental health and coping strategies less visible to those who may be suffering the most.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it could not be more appropriate as the stresses we normally endure, manage, and ignore are further compounded by the impact surrounding a global health crisis. In February, Mental Health America observed a 19 percent increase in screening clinical anxiety and a 12 percent increase in the first two weeks of March. A mid- to late-March poll suggests there is a widening gender gap in coronavirus-related stress with women overall at 16 percentage points more likely than men to say that worry or stress related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health. Among parents of children under age 18, women are 25 percent more likely than men to say their mental health has gotten worse because of the pandemic.
The aggregation of roles and responsibilities that women find themselves in or take on may contribute to deeper and long-term vulnerabilities in women’s mental health even as we come out of the pandemic, but this should not be surprising. Women have been performing the majority of household chores, are more likely to be serving as informal caregivers, and experience anxiety and depression at greater rates than men, as observed by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
While some have the luxury of teleworking these days, healthcare workers are on the frontline of this pandemic – women compose 85 percent (3.6 million) of this workforce as registered nurses, nursing home employees, and psychiatric and home health aides. And we know these women are overworked, underpaid, getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Outside of the formal healthcare workforce, women compose up to 68 percent of the 65.7 million Americans serving as informal family caregivers, and typically perform the more difficult caregiving tasks such as bathing and toilet care. On the single parent front, 80.4 percent of custodial parents are mothers, many struggling but enduring with little respite or relief. Meanwhile, reports of domestic violence continue to rise as women (and men) find themselves quarantined with their abusers.
So what can we do as individuals? If you need immediate help, see crisis hotlines and links below. Otherwise, a good and authoritative place to start is with the World Health Organization’s Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak document which has concise and surprisingly targeted recommendations for the general population, healthcare workers, older adults and those with underlying health risks, those who care for children, and people in isolation. If you cannot or do not want to stay home, there are resources on how to stay safe at work or school.
Anecdotally, I have been in quarantine since 18 March with a fiancé and a dog. I am thousands of miles away from my mother who lives in New York and other close family members in California. I am authorized to work in the office one week, with two weeks off at home. I struggled in keeping up with the news cycle during the first few weeks, which became time-consuming and overwhelming. I have participated in virtual yoga and virtual happy hours and regularly visited a close friend on an individual basis. After over a month in state-directed quarantine, there are three things I have found most valuable to my mental health. One, I respond as honestly and empathetically as possible when people ask me how I am doing. While my response may vary depending on the degree of familiarity, being able to present myself as authentically as possible even if I’m not feeling the greatest prevents internalization of my stress and allows others to reciprocate in conversations that create understanding and ultimately, community. Two, I have been taking breaks, not just from the news cycle or social media, but sitting quietly which can become prayer or thinking through anxieties, re-assessing priorities, planning, and recognizing factors I cannot control. This has helped me to appreciate the things I have – even the forced quarantine, which has unexpectedly slowed down my inclination to constantly distract myself with the next project or task. Three, I am volunteering in my neighborhood community and remotely. Although the quarantine has prevented me from typical group volunteer activities, I now volunteer to do grocery shopping for neighbors who cannot go out due to the COVID-19 risk to their age group. And volunteering especially to help others in need, – whether in a global crisis or not – has significant health benefits from physical health to life satisfaction, social well-being and depression.
Crisis resources to get help now: