OPINION

Social distancing shouldn't mean social isolation

VITAL: It's important that we increase social co-operation and connections, and maintain strong social bonds.
VITAL: It's important that we increase social co-operation and connections, and maintain strong social bonds.

It is normal and healthy to feel stress and anxiety sometimes, and very understandable to feel it in these unprecedented times.

Across Australia and the globe, there is deep uncertainty about what the COVID-19 pandemic might mean for us - as individuals, families, workers, communities and nations.

This may manifest in different ways for all of us, physically and mentally.

Clearly we are already seeing panic, not least in the frenzied toilet paper buying that we couldn't have ever contemplated weeks ago. And now we are also hearing about rural and regional towns having to screen shoppers so that city people, coming in busloads, aren't cleaning out all their groceries.

But there is much reasonable uncertainty and anxiety away from the supermarket shelves for many individuals and groups.

For elderly people or those with physical or mental health issues who rely on services to help them with their everyday needs.

For loved ones in residential aged care, as services and visits are reduced or withdrawn.

For people living with dementia who may need extra support, particularly if their routines are disrupted.

For people in our essential services, including health and disability care, education and public transport, who are putting themselves under - often heroic - pressure to manage the growing demands of their jobs, while trying to keep themselves and their families safe and well.

For those who are losing already precarious income because they have to go into isolation or whose jobs are at risk.

And for those whose concerns about the coronavirus are coming on top of existing mental health conditions, and can lead to increases in distress, symptoms and relapse.

First, it is important to remember that medical, scientific and public health experts around the world are working hard to contain the virus, treat those affected and develop a vaccine as quickly as possible.

At home, governments are devoting enormous resources to respond to COVID-19 and to address the economic consequences. The country will pull through.

But there is much we can do also at an individual, family and community level to manage anxiety, distress, and also the loneliness that can come from this unprecedented disruption to life.

There is much we can do also at an individual, family and community level to manage anxiety, distress, and also the loneliness that can come from this unprecedented disruption to life.

When health officials talk about "social distancing" they do not mean "social isolation". This is a time when we need to increase our social co-operation and connections, and to maintain strong social bonds.

While physical separation is critical to controlling the pandemic, the last thing that we want is for people to become socially isolated.

Like many of you, I've been inspired by the generosity and thoughtfulness of many grassroots initiatives to look out for neighbours who may be isolated or unable to stock up on their needs, setting up "quarantine response teams", and of children sending drawings and letters to aged care residents.

On Facebook, there is a WA support campaign to "adopt a health worker", to lend support to those we are critically relying on.

And we can also look after ourselves and our families as much as possible. Here are some useful tips from Beyond Blue for people in self-isolation, that can also be useful for all of us as we stay closer to home:

  • Remind yourself that this is a temporary period of isolation to slow the spread of the virus
  • Remember that your effort is helping others in the community avoid contracting the virus
  • Stay connected with friends, family and colleagues via email, social media, video conferencing or phone
  • Connect with others via Beyond Blue
  • Engage in healthy activities that you enjoy and find relaxing
  • Keep regular sleep routines, eat healthy foods and try to maintain physical activity
  • Establish routines if you can and try to view this period as a new experience that can bring health benefits
  • Avoid news and social media if you find it distressing

Here are some links to credible sources of information that might also help:

And remember, you can phone Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Wishing you all good health and support.

Angus Clelland is chief executive of Mental Health Victoria