Tip Sheets

Tips on covering mental health during the pandemic

By Tara Haelle

It will take a while to learn all the ways the pandemic has affected the nation’s collective and individual mental health. But there are resources journalists can use now to begin teasing it apart and reporting on it. The tips and resources below all relate to covering the pandemic’s mental health impact, whether it’s coming up with story ideas, best practices for mental health reporting or learning about what past medical research has shown about pandemics and mental health. 

Diversify your coverage. Keep in mind that responses both to a pandemic and to mental health challenges, in general, can vary significantly across populations and various demographics, including age, gender, geographic region, race, ethnicity, culture, subculture, family status, wealth and other factors. 

Distinguish between different stressors in different groups. The mental health impact for the general public will be different than it is for those in harder hit cities, such as New York. The impact for those who remained home but did not lose anyone to the disease will differ from those who lost family members or friends and were unable to attend funerals. The impact for healthcare workers will be very different than those who aren’t caring for the sick and dying daily. The experience of essential workers working in grocery stores, delivery services, food service and similar industries (often for low wages) will differ from those still staying home and out of work. And both groups will differ from those trying to work from home while also caring for children. It’s impossible to cover all these groups (and more) in a single article, so make sure you’re clear about who you’re talking to, who you’re talking about, and what the different stressors and effects may be.

Read up on the research related to pandemics and mental health. The Journalist’s Resource compiled this research round-up on the effects of infectious disease outbreaks on mental health that can help you familiarize yourself with the topic. Issues include the impact on patients, healthcare workers and the public, the stigma associated with infectious disease and research related to solutions to these challenges. 

Be sure to vet your experts and their recommendations. There are many people who bill themselves as mental health experts but not have any formal training in this area. Others may have mental health expertise, but in a specialty less relevant to pandemic issues or to the specific subtopic you’re covering. Use the same best practices that you would for reporting on any other medical issue to find the experts most appropriate and qualified for your specific topic. That means making sure they have the appropriate training to speak on the topic. That may mean asking for citations to the research that supports their recommendations. If they say something that surprises you or seems non-conventional, ask for details and evidence. 

Explore the telehealth component. It’s possible that the most significant long-term outcome of this pandemic on mental health care and practice will be a shift to offering telehealth services. Mental health care via virtual and telehealth services was already a growing trend, particularly in rural areas that have less access to conventional in-person care. But the pandemic’s restrictions on social distancing may end up having far broader and longer-lasting implications on the amount of access available via telehealth, and possibly even greater receptiveness among people previously uncomfortable with going to a mental health professional in person. The opportunities for stories in this area are endless.

Check out this amazing list of resources. There are several links below related to mental health and COVID-19. By far, the most extensive list of resources I found was Mental Health and COVID-19 – Information and Resources from Mental Health America. It covers a wide range of topics and populations and is a must-stop for anyone covering mental health and the pandemic.

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