Coping with depression in an era of social distancing

Stay connected to family and friends via video calls.
Steven Cuffe, MD, is a professor and the chair of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville.

Psychiatrist Steven Cuffe, MD, discusses tips for those with depression and anxiety.

Social distancing during COVID-19 has ushered in a new era of virtual interaction. As people adjust to the new normal of social distancing, those with depression or anxiety may be at risk for worsening symptoms. Although stay-at-home orders have been lifted for many states, the overall reduced social interaction can still be stressful for those with mental illnesses.

Steven Cuffe, MD, a professor and chair of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville, says people who already have depression may see an increase in symptoms without regular social interaction.

“One of the techniques we recommend for patients with depression is activation,” Cuffe said. “It’s therapeutic for them to get out and do things with other people. The lack of ability to do that is isolating and feeds their depressive symptoms.”

Face-to-face interaction

Cuffe recommends that people with depression find ways to stay socially connected. For those who still can’t leave their home, video calls with friends and family are important. Connecting over video is vital, since making eye contact, seeing reactions and interacting in real time are more beneficial than only communicating through text messages or phone calls.

Although social media can be a way to stay connected, Cuffe recommends limiting the time spent scrolling and interacting on those platforms. Instead, focus on face-to-face connections.

Gathering safely in outdoor spaces

Since many states have lifted stay-at-home mandates, the option to socialize in person with friends and family is available again. Cuffe recommends keeping interactions to small groups and staying outdoors when possible. Since the emergence of a second virus wave is likely, it’s important to still practice safe interaction while managing depression and anxiety.

“Crowded indoor locations may have a higher concentration of virus particles in the air,” Cuffe said. “On the contrary, outdoor locations with a mask reduce the risk.”

Staying mindful and meditating

Anxiety can often go hand in hand with depression or other mental illnesses. Those experiencing anxiety from social distancing and current events may find practicing mindfulness and meditation to be a helpful strategy.

Cuffe recommends deep breathing and relaxing exercises, as well as guided imagery techniques. Some free apps, such as Headspace and Calm, offer guided meditations. The University of California San Diego Center for Mindfulness also produces free guided meditations online. 

Connecting with a provider virtually

Exercising and remaining active are great ways to naturally reduce depression and anxiety symptoms. However, those with more severe conditions should consider using telemedicine to continue their provider visits virtually and maintain access to prescribed medication.

Patients with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, may also be under more stress during these times and their symptoms will likely worsen. To prevent relapses for those in remission, it’s important for family members to be more understanding and remain supportive. Stay observant and connect yourself or your loved one with a provider via telemedicine if symptoms worsen. 

If patients haven’t met with a provider yet, Cuffe encourages them to make a virtual appointment, as UF Health Psychiatry is currently accepting new patients.

Although life is slowly returning to normal, the new era of social distancing still presents a challenge for those with mental illnesses. Staying on top of warning signs and remaining proactive can help prevent or lessen worsening symptoms. For more information about managing depression and anxiety during COVID-19, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which offers great resources and information. Also, follow the Health Matters blog to find related topics on mental well-being.

Featured Faculty

Steven P. Cuffe, MD, FACPsych

Steven P. Cuffe, MD, FACPsych

Chair, Department of Psychiatry; Program Director, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship; Associate Clerkship Director