Protecting the Mental Health of High-Risk Populations During Quarantine

Some high-risk groups of people, such as frontline workers, those with health conditions, and children may face mental health challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We often hear about the physical health risks of COVID-19, but important mental health consequences related to the pandemic are also occurring, especially in high-risk populations. People with pre-existing mental health issues, a history of substance abuse or medical problems have experienced worsened mental health in the face of a global pandemic. In a recent survey, 81% of mental health professionals said clients reported an increase in mental health symptoms, with anxiety, depression and stress being the most common.

They’re not the only ones. Children, essential workers, frontline health workers, and people living with disabilities are also at high risk for mental distress. Resources, coping strategies and trained professionals are available to help high-risk individuals and their families protect their mental health during the pandemic. 

Article at a Glance:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic can be especially distressing for various at-risk populations, such as children, caretakers, people with medical conditions, individuals with disabilities and frontline workers.
  • People may turn to drugs or alcohol to help them manage the distress of living through a global pandemic.
  • Help from a professional who is skilled in treating mental illness or substance abuse can help people cope with the mental health consequences of COVID-19. 

1. People at Higher Risk of Contracting COVID-19

Those who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, such as older adults and those with underlying health issues, may be susceptible to mental health problems during the pandemic. These individuals may be fearful of contracting the virus and feel like they are not in control of their own health. A UK study conducted by researchers working for various colleges and universities in London and Ireland found that older adults were more likely to have anxiety about COVID-19. Study results also found that people who had pre-existing health problems or who had loved ones with health problems were more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

If you fall into the category of having a pre-existing health condition or being older, you can cope with your anxiety surrounding COVID-19 by taking precautions to keep yourself safe. Avoid large crowds, wear a mask and social distance if you must go out in public, and follow medical experts’ advice. You may feel that the COVID-19 situation is out of your control, but you can take steps to protect your health. If you are supporting loved ones who are anxious about COVID-19 because of age or health problems, you can help them by listening to their concerns and respecting their desire to be cautious.

2. Caretakers

If you are in a caretaking role for an older adult or someone with a medical condition, the COVID-19 pandemic can also be especially stressful for you. Chances are you are having to take extra precautions to avoid spreading the virus to those under your care, and you may be feeling socially isolated. During this time, it is important to remember to practice self-care.

The University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry recommends that caretakers remember to use healthy coping strategies and take time to care for themselves through healthy nutrition, adequate sleep and regular physical activity. It is also necessary to connect with others to avoid feeling emotionally disconnected. This can involve calling loved ones or making a visit while maintaining a safe social distance.

3. Parents

Similar to caretakers, parents can feel the stress of caring for others. They may be worried about keeping children safe from the virus or worried about children returning to school, where they may be exposed to others who are sick. Two-parent households may have to decide who will return to work and who will care for the children if homeschooling is necessary. Single parents may feel excessively stressed during these times, as they balance work and childcare responsibilities, especially if children are not returning to school in the fall.

As with caretakers, it is important for parents to find time to care for themselves. Reaching out to other parents to talk can be a source of support and an outlet for stress. Parents who are struggling with childcare arrangements may consider choosing one family member or friend who is at home and available to care for the children during the workday to eliminate some of the stress of finding childcare. If possible, it is also important to take a few moments per day for yourself, perhaps to take a relaxing bath or a walk around the block.

4. Children and Teens

While parents are certainly feeling the strain of the pandemic, children and teens are also at risk of mental health problems. Their daily routines may have been disrupted. They are likely picking up on the stress and worries of the adults in their lives. According to a survey by The Recovery Village of 1,000 parents of school-aged children, 66% of children and teens are anxious about returning to school.

In addition, nearly three-fourths of parents indicated that COVID-19 has impacted their children’s mental health. A majority of parents also reported symptoms like anxiety, depression and anger were new for their children.

It is important that parents be willing to listen to their children’s fears and concerns and provide validation that it is okay to have strong feelings. Parents can help their children by creating routine and structure wherever possible. In some cases, it may be necessary for parents to seek mental health resources, such as therapy, for their children. Fortunately, many providers offer teletherapy, which can occur remotely and prevent the spread of the virus.

5. Frontline Workers and Other Essential Workers

In addition to other vulnerable populations, frontline workers and other essential personnel may be especially prone to anxiety surrounding COVID-19. Frontline workers who are exposed to COVID-19 victims may experience trauma and distress; they also live with the concern of bringing the virus home to family. Essential workers, such as grocery store personnel and food service staff, are exposed to the public daily and may be fearful of contracting and spreading the virus.

A study conducted with healthcare workers in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus originated, confirmed that these workers might be at risk of mental health symptoms.Results found that 20.1% of workers had at least mild depression and anxiety levels, and over half reported moderate to severe stress levels. Concerns about themselves or coworkers contracting the virus were top sources of stress.

Essential workers can ease some of their concerns by practicing proper safety measures, such as wearing masks, maintaining a safe social distance, and regularly washing their hands. Reaching out to family and friends for emotional support can also be helpful.

6. Existing Mental Health Conditions or Substance Abuse Problems

Individuals who had pre-existing mental health conditions or substance abuse problems are also at risk of complications during the pandemic. Of the 440 mental health practitioners surveyed by The Recovery Village about clients’ mental health, 95% indicated that anxiety had increased; 85% reported an elevation in depression, and 82% stated that stress levels had risen.

In addition, survey results showed that 53% of clients have increased their use of drugs and alcohol since the pandemic, including increases in alcohol, marijuana, heroin, fentanyl and benzodiazepine use. The data suggests people who use alcohol or drugs may be turning to them more to cope with the added distress and negative mental health consequences of the pandemic.

Those struggling with mental health symptoms or substance abuse should reach out to a professional to help them develop healthy coping mechanisms. Teletherapy options are available to help people receive services remotely. Some providers like The Recovery Village also offer resources and online support groups for drug and alcohol use.

7. People with Disabilities

According to the American Psychological Association, a pandemic can also harm the mental health of people with disabilities. They may lack access to needed supplies as a result of limited resources. They may also experience increased social isolation, as normal outings and group activities may no longer be possible. Some individuals with disabilities may have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, which can increase anxiety.

If you have a loved one who lives with a disability, make an effort to reach out to him or her, even if by phone, to maintain social connections. Include them in activities wherever possible, and be an advocate so they can access needed services. People living with disabilities may also benefit from connecting with a local board of developmental disabilities for services.

8. People Who Have Lost Their Jobs

Losing a job and struggling financially is an obvious source of stress, and with COVID-19 causing some businesses to close or reduce budgets, this is, unfortunately, a reality for many people. Those who have lost their jobs may struggle to cope and may even turn to drugs or alcohol to ease their distress.

A 2012 study found that being unemployed significantly increased the risk of relapsing to drug use, so those who have found themselves without a job because of coronavirus may be at increased risk. If this is the case, it is important to reach out for treatment to find healthier ways to cope. A treatment provider may also provide resources, such as job training and employment opportunities.

People Experiencing Homelessness

According to experts, the homeless are at a greater risk of complications from coronavirus due to underlying health problems, addiction and living in crowded shelters or tents. This, combined with the stress of poverty and inadequate housing, can make a pandemic even more distressing for those experiencing homelessness. It is important for these populations to reach out to community service providers for resources and needed healthcare services during this time.

9. Socially Isolated People

Those who live alone may feel lonely and bored during the COVID-19 quarantine, which can make them feel anxious or depressed. Self-care can help someone cope with these side effects of social isolation. Self-care may involve exercising, getting plenty of sleep, trying a new hobby or taking time to work on house projects. Those who struggle with severe distress from social isolation may benefit from reaching out for counseling via the Nobu teletherapy app

10. Some Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups

Unfortunately, some racial and ethnic minority groups may face challenges during the COVID-19 outbreak due to poverty and health disparities that can make them more likely to have complications if they catch the virus. They may also experience discrimination from healthcare providers, which can create additional anxiety surrounding COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that racial and ethnic minority groups, including people of color from diverse backgrounds, may be more likely to be affected by COVID-19. The CDC recommends that people turn to community- and faith-based organizations for support. People who are experiencing discrimination may also benefit from reaching out to a social worker, as these professionals are trained specifically to advocate for groups who have faced discrimination.

People Without Access to Information in Their Primary Language

Common among these minority groups are those who are not native English speakers. They may be at risk of mental distress during the COVID-19 pandemic because they cannot completely understand the recommendations of medical experts. This can understandably be anxiety-provoking. Fortunately, the CDC provides communication resources in dozens of languages.

11. People Who Live in Group Settings

People who live in group settings may also face mental health challenges in a pandemic. This can include nursing homes, dorms, sober living housing and more. In addition to being concerned about potentially contracting the virus, they may feel isolated from loved ones who cannot visit. Those who live in group settings can control their situation by following recommendations, such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing. They can also create a sense of connection by making regular phone calls and video chats with loved ones.

People in Evacuation Shelters

With hurricane season underway, it is also important to consider the challenges people may face if they flee to an evacuation shelter. These settings can be crowded, which increases the risk of spreading illness and adds stress on top of the challenge of leaving home. As with other groups at increased risk of exposure to the virus, it is important to stay safe by practicing social distancing, wearing a mask, washing hands and avoiding touching surfaces.

Those living in group settings and other high-risk individuals may be especially susceptible to contracting the COVID-19 virus or experiencing the challenges that come with social isolation. Some people may have mild depression and anxiety symptoms, which may be alleviated through self-care, proper precautions, and taking time to connect with loved ones. In some cases, people may require professional help to help them overcome severe mental health symptoms or develop healthier coping mechanisms.

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health symptoms and substance abuse as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, The Recovery Village provides services that can help you to overcome your situation. We even offer teletherapy, inpatient and outpatient options to keep you safe during the pandemic. Contact us today to begin your recovery journey. 


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