Community Connections in Times of Physical Separation

If you’re experiencing feelings of worry, irritability, or low mood right now, you’re not alone. While it’s necessary to keep up-to-date and make changes to daily life in order to help control the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), the constant news cycle coupled with physical distancing measures can have a real impact on mental health.

We know that human connection is one of the most critical protective factors for good mental health. But how can we stay in connection while still following medical guidance to limit your exposure to others?

Staying Emotionally Connected

Community isn’t just about proximity, it’s first and foremost a mindset about who we consider to be “our own.” In the face of physical distancing, remember that we all need one another — maybe more than ever — to get through difficult times like these. Staying emotionally connected as a community even if we temporarily become more physically isolated is critical to all our mental health.

When a crisis hits our communities, groups like older adults, people with disabilities, mental health challenges, immigrants and newcomers, or people with less money are already disproportionately impacted. Take for example, the experience of coming down with a cold during this time. If you have a job with sick leave, the current mandate to stay home until you are symptom free might be a minor inconvenience. But for many of our neighbors who lose income, or even lose their jobs if they stay home, the impact can be devastating.

The Impact

This impact on more vulnerable groups is amplified when people become afraid and act on their natural instincts to narrow their social circle. There’s nothing wrong with drawing close to your closest supporters when times are tough, but resist the tendency to treat people outside that circle as “other” which can lead to scapegoating and stereotyping other groups of people due to fear or misinformation. Similarly, don’t hoard resources. Stockpiling increases demand and prices go up, making much-needed products like cleansers and medicines out-of-reach for vulnerable populations who need them the most. 

How to Show Up for Others

Lastly remember that the messages we spread matter. Even well-intentioned communication designed to curb hysteria can have a negative impact. For example, we’ve been hearing reassurance from many news sources that the public should not be overly concerned because those most at risk are elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. But this is a huge and vital part of our community: According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 50 to 129 million Americans have a pre-existing health condition and 52 million Americans are over the age of 65. The health and lives of all our elderly neighbors as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions are just as precious as our own. Being considerate about how we talk about the risk to these people, as well as being considerate of their heightened needs through our behaviors can go a long way to bringing us closer together.

In times of crisis, it’s important to know both who you can show up for, and who you can turn to. Show up safely for people in your community by using technology like video conferencing, phone calls, social media, or even text messages to check in on your neighbors. Play an online video game with the young relatives you might be missing out on visiting. Take the time to acknowledge the people you see when you’re out of the house with safer greetings. If you have a surplus of critical items like cleansers or non-perishable foods consider donating them to a shelter or food bank for our vulnerable neighbors who may not be able to afford them.

Taking Care of Yourself

When you need someone to turn to, but are having difficulty connecting with someone in your support network, take advantage of online or phone support available through a variety of free warm-lines, like The Peer-Run Warm Line for peer-run non-emergency emotional support or SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Line to connect with a trained crisis counselor.  

Self-care can also help you stay physically and mentally well and is even more critical during times of heightened stress. It’s important to re-establish routines when your normal schedule of going to work or school is disrupted. If at all possible, keep a consistent time for going to bed and rising, as well as normal activities like exercising, and eating at mealtimes instead of sporadically. Try new tools to adapt to changing circumstances, like swapping out an exercise app you can do at home instead of going to the gym. Self-care also may include taking a break from news and social media periodically.

By staying in community, even if we are more physically separated, we can and will get through this crisis as we have gotten through so many others in the past — together.