No more public events, staying at home, minimal social contact—the containment measures for Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 are affecting people throughout the whole world. One question that is not often addressed by the media is how mental and emotional problems can arise as a result of these restrictions. IPU professor Gunther Meinlschmidt has dedicated himself to this problem in cooperation with Berlin venture Selfapy and has developed an online course, which offers support for as many people as possible in these unusual times. The program is free of charge and deals with stress management, maintaining a routine, reduced social contact, home office, home schooling, and handling negative feelings, among others. This scientific support faces the challenge of handling the wide variety of effects people experience from the measures taken in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the following interview, Meinlschmidt explains what the online course is about, who it is meant for, and which goals the program has.
Professor Meinlschmidt, how did you come to work with Selfapy on an online course to handle stress and psychological strain in the times of the Coronavirus?
Meinlschmidt: A good three weeks ago, it became apparent that there is an enormous need for support in handling stress and psychological strain that people experience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The kind of stress I am referring to is unrelated to whether someone has contracted COVID-19 or not. We have observed that a vast number of recommendations for handling the new psychological challenges have popped up seemingly all at once, even from large organizations like the World Health Organization. We know from other situations, however, that recommendations alone are usually not enough. For many who are affected, it is a challenge to realize these general recommendations—and they fall flat. Farina Schurzfeld, Kati Bermbach with her team from Selfapy, and we here decided to work on a program together that would help people to manage stress and psychological strain throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
What kind of difficulties are we talking about? How would you estimate the need?
Meinlschmidt: The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting difficulties are in some ways unique. Not just as a singular event, but also in comparison to other significantly stressful events in the last 50 years, such as natural catastrophes, wars, or famines. All of these events were confined to specific areas and affected different regions to various degrees. With the current pandemic, we have an event that essentially affects all people in one way or another, whether socially or professionally. At the same time, it is uncommon that the forms of psychological stress are so heterogenous. For example, some people are facing financial strain, and some are concerned they will have to close their businesses or that their careers are at risk. People who are already suffering from illness may react more sensitively to the risk of infection. Others are very dependent on other people for stability but are not able to see them right now. Some parents are forced to manage working from home and attending to their children’s homeschooling at the same time. And then of course there are people who are fundamentally affected by the current pandemic, but are experiencing this time positively—for example, as a beneficial time to slow down and return to the essentials in life.
How does the Selfapy Corona course react to the fact that the problematic situation is so heterogenous?
Meinlschmidt: We have taken the approach of developing a relatively broad resource to be made available to those affected. It is made up of twelve modules, which incorporate general knowledge of coping strategies and resources regarding catastrophes and psychological stress, combined with specific strategies tailored to the current COVID-19 pandemic situation. We have supplemented this with reactions to specific needs that we identified through discussions with affected people in a variety of age groups. Participants receive access to all the modules and can select which are specifically relevant to them. There are also a range of resources within the modules. The section “Movement and Sports” asks: What are they interested in? What kind of movement is missing? Some have workout equipment at home that they like to use, and others like to go jogging and can continue with that. But those who used to go to Football practice twice a week must reorient themselves in order to continue with physical fitness. There is no one solution. Thereby, the many tips going around are limited: They are well-intentioned and can provide relief, but still leave those affected largely alone in implementing the recommendations in everyday life. We want to support those suffering in understanding what these recommendations can mean for them concretely, and—most importantly—assisting them in implementing this advice in their everyday lives. Through this scientific assistance, we hope to soon have more solid data that will provide a more precise, empirical picture of the burdens being faced and what support measures are possible. This provides a foundation for better adapting resources to individual problems.
That means that the online course offers something to many people. Are their target groups who would particularly benefit?
Meinlschmidt: Basically, anyone age 18 or over can participate—the language is German. One essentially only needs a computer or smartphone with internet access. The program is oriented towards people who feel stressed and want to do something, so they feel better and less stressed in the current situation. The program is free of charge. It is recommended to allow a month’s time for the program contents, during which one should be involved in the things that seem particularly important on an individual basis. The contents are available for a year, so that the possibility exists to return to them at a later point. However, it is also important to emphasize when the course alone is insufficient: If you have massive problems that result in the inability to manage daily life for an extended period of time, you should contact professional help directly. Advice regarding this is integrated into the program for cases of significant problems, including information on who one can turn to in emergencies [Phone numbers have been included at the end of this text.]
Does stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic change over time?
Meinlschmidt: When the possible effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on German and European life resulting from infection containment measures became apparent at the end of February/beginning of March, many were primarily concerned with adapting to the new situation. Questions relating to uncertainties and burdens had to do with home office, children, social distancing, work life, risk of infection, and the increasing restrictions. Meanwhile, we are now in a new phase. A new kind of everyday life is beginning to form. At this point, there are other questions in the foreground: How long will it last? How long can we endure it? There is also an increasing awareness of the question of what kind of long-term “side effects” the pandemic situation will bring about, such as for senior citizens who live in care facilities or are lying in hospitals, and who are prohibited from having visitors. How will it affect children who have no contact to their friends and only ever see a few other children? And a serious question asks, how are people faring, who live in households subject to violence? There are alarming initial indications. I think that all of this presents us and all of society with a mammoth task—much greater than economical factors. Thankfully, political bodies are reflecting on these themes more and more, but we cannot underestimate this side of the COVID-19 pandemic and its long-term consequences. We must better understand them and should do much more to protect and support those who are affected.
Selfapy GmbH offers guided online courses for coping with psychological problems. Prof. Dr. Gunther Meinlschmidt is a professor of clinical psychology at IPU Berlin. He researches symptoms and health at the intersection of psychology and medicine, as well as new technologies in the context of psychological disorders, psychotherapy, and health promotion.
More information: https://www.selfapy.de/corona/
Spiritual Welfare: 0800 / 11 10 111 and 0800 / 11 10 222, E-Mail: Telefonseelsorge@diakonie.de (available 24/7)
Nummer gegen Kummer [Number against Distress] (for children and youth): 0800 / 10 10 33 (Mo. through Sa., 14:00-20:00)
Info-Telephone Depression: 0800 / 33 44 533
Helpline Violence Against Women: 0800 / 0 116 116 (Chat, Online Counseling and more Information: www.hilfetelefon.de)
Berliner Krisendienst (Berlin Crisis Center)
Overview of emergency numbers for depression and other psychological emergency situations
Spiritual Welfare: Telefon 142 (Emergency Number, available 24/7)
Women‘s Helpline: 0800 / 222 555 (available 24/7)
Overview of more regional crisis lines and emergency numbers
The Outstretched Hand (Spiritual Welfare and Crisis Counseling): Telephone 143
Women’s Line: 052 213 61 61
Switzerland Women's Shelter