A Quick Word with: Kathleen Guarino on Mental Health During a Health Crisis

During this period of widespread uncertainty and fear, mental health has become a popular topic in the media and in daily conversation. How has the pandemic and quarantine affected our mental health, and what strategies can people use to care for themselves?

Kathleen Guarino is a senior technical assistance consultant at AIR with expertise in child mental health, trauma, and trauma-informed care. In this Q&A, she discusses the challenges—and some unexpected opportunities—around mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine.

Q. Why is it particularly important to pay attention to mental health right now?

Guarino: We are all under a great deal of stress, and the state of our mental health affects everything—how we work, how we parent, how we engage with others, and how we respond to the many stressors related to this pandemic in the day-to-day. At the most basic level of the brain and body, we find ourselves in a constant struggle over which part of our nervous system is in charge—the part that helps us to stay balanced and calm, or the part in charge of our survival, that helps us to respond to stress. Under stressful circumstances, especially right now when things are frightening and uncertain, it easy to get stuck in “survival mode.” In this state, it is harder for us to manage our emotions, to deal with everyday stressors, to connect with friends and family, and to focus on our work. At this time, we have to make a concerted effort to be our own “state detectives” and practice noticing what state we are in and which strategies we can use to promote our own positive mental health and well-being.

Q. What are some of those effective techniques?

"Just because we’re physically separated, we don’t necessarily have to be socially isolated."

Guarino: This will vary a bit for every individual, but there are some practices that are known to help us cope with stress. These include attending to our physical health—eating well, moving our bodies, and getting good sleep—as well as our emotional health. Strategies for supporting our emotional health at this time include:

  • Limiting our media consumption;
  • Practices such as breathing, mindfulness techniques, prayer or meditation, and other body-based activities such as yoga, dance, or other forms of movement that foster awareness of our emotional states and help regulate our nervous system;
  • Building in time to do things we enjoy;
  • Finding humor and opportunities to laugh;
  • Noticing the things we are grateful for on a daily basis;
  • Practicing compassion for ourselves and others at this time;
  • Maintaining connections with friends, families, and other communities that sustain us, even in a virtual space; and
  • Creating some balance by separating work and home, especially during this time when many are working virtually and these lines are blurred.

Q. What are the implications of the pandemic and social distancing on mental health?

Guarino: We know that relationships and social connection are essential to positive mental health and well-being, and this was already a challenge for some people before the pandemic. If people can connect virtually, it can help to fill some of that need, even though it’s not exactly the same as in-person interaction, and it may not offer all the same benefits. Just because we’re physically separated, we don’t necessarily have to be socially isolated. People are finding all kinds of ways to stay connected to individuals and communities that are important to them. This includes video conversations with friends, virtual yoga classes, and online religious services. There are also rituals that can bring us together in larger ways, such as nightly neighborhood applause for health workers, or live concerts and other arts events that allow us to connect around a shared sense of beauty and meaning.

Q. What changes have occurred in the mental health field during the coronavirus pandemic? Are there any potential positive, long-term outcomes?

Guarino: There’s been a major shift to telemental health care services, and it’s an adjustment for both the people receiving care and those providing it. Online mental health therapy has potential drawbacks: For some people, there’s no substitute for in-person connection; others lack access to technology. On the other hand, some people may find online therapy to be more convenient or comfortable; they don’t have to worry about child care or transportation to and from the therapist, for example. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future, and if mental health professionals end up adopting a hybrid approach to their work based on what we learn during this time about optimizing the delivery of mental health services.

In general, the pandemic has raised awareness of mental health as a topic, especially in the media. I hope that this helps people understand that mental health is important for everyone and lessens the stigma surrounding mental health. If this pandemic were to lead to greater awareness of what it takes to support positive mental health, and greater funding and access to mental health services, that would be a potentially positive outcome.