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Sydney Reed, Britt Quiroz and Andrea Vasquez are Chronic Disease Coalition Ambassadors and patient advocates based in California. COVID-19 has had a profound impact on our mental health and wellness. For many able-bodied individuals, quarantining has led to unintended consequences severely affecting their mental health and wellbeing. Mental health organizations and suicide hotlines have reported increased call rates, and studies indicate there are rising rates of anxiety, stress, depression and helplessness among the American public. There is a cloud of uncertainty that looms over many for the first time in their lives. However, for a growing and, largely, invisible sector of America, this fear and uncertainty has always been the norm. For the 7 in 10 Americans that suffer from a chronic condition, mental health plays a critical role in treatment and ongoing management of the illness. As patient advocates, we have spent years coping with the mental toll that accompanies battling a chronic disease – everything from the onset of symptoms, to the diagnosis process and learning to live and adapt to a “new normal.” May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Patient advocacy organizations are using this opportunity to advocate for increased access to mental health services, share best practices to cope with anxiety and depression and raise awareness about state and federal legislation that might impact someone’s ability to receive or pay for mental health treatment. Social isolation can be incredibly frustrating for those who are experiencing it for the first time. Ongoing feelings of irritation and helplessness are compounded by fears relating to the unknown, lack of information, concerns around becoming infected and dwindling supplies. This month gives us an opportunity to use our voice to help those who are struggling with their mental health – perhaps for the first time – in ways that we have learned to cope with. For us – we’ve taken our experience as patients and turned it into advocacy. We’ve learned a few things along the way, especially when it comes to taking care of our mental health during times of self-quarantine:
  1. Write your thoughts down. Really – try it! Writing your fears, thoughts and anxieties down is a form of venting – something that we all need to do from time to time. Keeping track of your thoughts, when and how they progress, and what your fears are may also help you better communicate to family, friends or a therapist about your needs.
  2. When you're stuck in a negative thought spiral, write down two good things. Writing down your favorite food, a joke or a name of someone who is important to you can help you focus on the things you value most.
  3. Self-care, self-care, self-care. Cake for dinner! Read a book! Believe it or not, drink a glass of water! Self-care can mean texting a friend, taking time to color in an adult coloring book or binge watching The Office for the eighth time. Whatever it is – make sure your mental health is a priority.
  4. Embrace the hobbies that you never had time for before quarantine. LEGOs, puzzles, learn to knit, watch makeup tutorials on YouTube, make a Tik Tok video (or make one with your kids!), do some cooking/baking, plan the itinerary for your dream vacation, listen to an audiobook while you sketch out that graphic novel you always wanted to make. Whatever it is that you enjoy but have never been able to prioritize, now is the time to do it!
  5. Try to stick to a daily routine or make a list of two or three attainable goals for the day. This could be something as simple as checking your mailbox or making your bed.
  6. Let yourself feel the way you feel. This is an upsetting situation so it’s ok to let yourself feel upset. Constantly pushing these feelings down can sometimes make them even stronger. There are times when you just have to let yourself feel these emotions and ride them out.
  7. Take a break from the news! This includes social media. Coronavirus news is endless and too much can be toxic to our mental health. Disconnect for a bit and give your mind some time to recoup.
  8. Connect with others— Call, text, or even write a letter. Maybe Skype with a friend and watch a movie together, or group chat with your cousins over FaceTime.
One thing that binds us together is our passion for advocacy – regardless of the disease. At a time when the mental well being of millions is being tested, we know we can help be a resource and guide for those looking for help. —Sydney Reed, Britt Quiroz, Andrea Vasquez