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April 21, 2020

Three signs you’re not coping in isolation

A checklist of behaviours to help you identify ailing mental health and some handy resources to turn to for help.

  • Words: Angela Skujins


South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute lead researcher Joep van Agteren, who we recently spoke to about SAHMRI’s Be Well Plan mental health initiative, understands that during the COVID-19 crisis it’s normal to feel “sub-optimal,” or, in a less clinical term, “shit,” he says.

“We’re in a time that a large majority of people that are still living have never seen,” Joep says.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a situation where the entire society has been pretty much placed on house arrest, and that’s not a small thing. Of course that will have a bit of an effect on all of us.”

While it’s normal to feel worried or alone right now (social distancing will do that to you), Joep says we should try not to let it come at a cost to our wellbeing.

To help us identify when we might need to reach out for help, Joep has outlined some behaviours to look out for that might mean your mental health is slipping, as well as some resources that can help hoist you back up.



Maybe you slept a solid eight hours before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now you’re only managing four. Or maybe it was two hours and now it’s nine. Regardless of the amount, a change in your sleep pattern should raise some alarm bells.

“If you’re really noticing changes in being able to fall asleep, or you’re actually sleeping longer than you normally do, that tends to be not a great sign,” Joep says.

Sleep and mental health are closely linked. Sleeping is imperative to letting your body physically heal itself – like repair tissue or grow muscle – and to let your brain process information from the day.

Studies vary on what the right amount of sleep is, but if you’re not getting what your body needs, it will underperform. To support your mental health, listen to your body and try to get as much sleep as you need to feel fully rested.



A poll commissioned by not-for-profit group Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education at the beginning of April revealed 70 per cent of its 1,035 respondents are drinking more alcohol than normal, and a third are drinking daily.

While alcohol can be used in positive ways in many situations, it also changes the chemical makeup of your brain and can dictate your mood, energy levels, sleeping patterns and memory. It should be a concern if you’re turning to alcohol to cope.

Something else you should be on the lookout for is a change in how you approach the food pyramid, says Joep.

“If normally you try and eat healthy a lot, and now you’re just going and eating junk food, that’s not a good sign.”

Essentially, if you’ve experienced lifestyle changes, like not going out to exercise or not speaking to loved ones, these are behaviours you could reengage with to lift your mood. Try to keep to your routine – it’ll help maintain normalcy.



Healthy relationships support good mental health, so it makes sense that being isolated can be a risk factor for developing issues like depression and anxiety. Where you can, foster those relationships.

“But if you become more snappy to the people you either have as a housemate or as your partner, and you’re realising that it’s affecting them, and you’re catching yourself out on it, that’s probably not a good sign,” Joep says.

It’s critical to self-reflect on these behaviours, as well as listen to people in your life who you trust when they tell you you’re acting out.

Joep also recommends, where practicable, leaving a household or home situation that is not conducive to good mental health.

“It’s unnecessary for you to not feel great,” he says.



If you’re not feeling your best, you can try an online wellbeing measurement test to see how you score. Identifying the problem may be the start of your mental health journey.

SAHMRI has an online test you can access for free, and once you complete it you receive a personalised report of your results.

There’s also SAHMRI’s pay-as-you-want Be Well Plan. The plan occurs over five sessions and aims to give participants tailored strategies in bolstering resilience and treating subclinical mental health symptoms, like anxiety and stress. It was launched to help individuals face the COVID-19 crisis.

Joep also recommends practicing mindfulness. Apps like Smiling Mind and Headspace offer simple five-minute grounding exercises that can “really make a difference,” he says. Online cognitive behavioural therapy website Moodgym also provides insight on how to manage symptoms of depression or anxiety.

But if individuals are worried about more serious symptoms, seek professional help.

Beyond Blue provides a list of numbers you can call, and the Black Dog Institute also has a list of support groups in every state and territory. Your local general practitioner can also help you access a mental health care plan, which includes a referral to an expert, such as a psychologist.

For mental health support by phone and video in relation to COVID-19, the State Government has established a COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line – 1800 632 753, available 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.

In a mental health emergency, call 13 14 65 – open 24 hours, every day.

You can also contact Lifeline at any time on 13 11 14.

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