In This Together – A blog for people with mental illness and the people who care for them

Your Loved One Who Has Serious Mental Illness May be at Increased Risk from COVID-19 (Coronavirus) – Here Are 3 Ways You Can Help

by Megan Rochford, PCC-S, Program Director at NAMI Greater Cleveland


People with serious mental illness experience challenges that make them especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. They often have risk factors such as asthma, heart disease or smoking, that are associated with more severe cases of COVID-19 illness. Residential instability or homelessness, lack of healthcare coverage, and smaller, less supportive social networks all leave people with serious mental illness with fewer defenses against the disease. The difficulties that people with serious mental illness experience in accessing the basic necessities can significantly limit their ability to protect themselves from the virus.

Substance Use Disorders

People with dual diagnoses (those who have both a mental illness and a substance use disorder) have even greater susceptibility to infection.  Substance misuse can make people more prone to risk-taking behavior and interfere with people’s ability to take appropriate safety and social distancing measures to protect themselves.

Distrust of Healthcare System

It is not uncommon for people with serious mental illness to avoid interacting with healthcare providers if they have previously experienced traumatic encounters in medical settings, where they can sometimes have difficulty getting their concerns taken seriously or encounter problems communicating with medical caregivers.  People who have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization after visiting an emergency room can carry lingering suspicions about the motives of medical providers involved in their care.  Mental illness itself is stigmatizing, and people with serious mental illness may experience deep shame over having both a mental illness and symptoms of possible COVID-19, that may keep them from seeking treatment for the virus.

Ways to Support Someone with Serious Mental Illness

  1. Active listening. To support a loved one with serious mental illness in the time of coronavirus, the most important and effective thing you can do is listen in a non-judgmental way to their concerns. Empathetic, respectful listening will build a level of trust and rapport that will help you help your loved one. For example, if your loved one expresses anxiety about going to a medical appointment, reflect their feelings with a statement such as, “You’re worried about going to a doctor right now.”
  2. Help Your Loved One Feel in Control. You may feel a certain urgency to help your loved one, which is understandable – you want to keep them safe. Remember that your loved one with mental illness often experiences healthcare as something that others do “to” them, rather than something they make their own decisions about.  Do your best to respect your loved one’s right to control their own healthcare decisions, rather than pressuring them to accept your recommendations. Try open-ended questions like, “What would be most helpful to you right now?” or “How can I assist you with staying healthy?”
  3. Offer Support. Your loved one may find it challenging to maintain healthy habits, such as eating a nutritious diet, getting proper exercise and self-management of underlying medical conditions. Let your loved one know that you’re here to help them stay healthy any way you can; express your admiration for their efforts to persevere with taking care of themselves.


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