Stress often exacerbates symptoms of mental illnesses. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for many – and a number of the factors that have come with it, like isolation and feeling like life is surreal, can directly contribute to psychosis.
MHA’s Kat McIntosh, Manager for Global Peer Support, has experienced psychosis since she was a child and noticed some unique challenges brought on by pandemic life. The following is a summary of a Q&A with Kat about her experiences.
HOW HAS THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC MADE LIVING WITH PSYCHOSIS DIFFICULT?
For Kat, the initial transition to quarantine was the hardest part for her to navigate while dealing with psychosis symptoms. She realized that society doesn’t actively think about people with psychosis, so when the pandemic hit, no one was prepared with adequate accommodations. The more she became isolated, the more her symptoms increased – it felt like there was “more space in [her] life where voices and images could play.” Many people have experienced “Zoom fatigue” during the pandemic, but Kat found the continuous video calls especially overwhelming. Staying engaged was a big mental lift for her – on top of the voices or visions she was already experiencing due to her psychosis. There was an influx of other images coming in on the many screens where she was supposed to be paying constant attention.
Even though all of this sensory overload was happening, Kat still found it difficult to tell people and convince them why this was a genuine struggle for her. In-person, it felt easier to blend in and make accommodations for herself – but in a much more virtual world, she found herself needing to have more conversations about her psychosis.
HAS THE PANDEMIC IMPACTED WHAT IT’S LIKE TO EXPERIENCE PSYCHOSIS SYMPTOMS?
Not everyone experiences psychosis the same way, and everyone’s lived experience is valid. For Kat, it feels like she is constantly watching several television screens that are always on. They all play something different and at varying volumes. They aren’t all scary, but each “screen” demands focus – there’s no way to tune one (or more) out. With that going on in the background, dealing with multiple people on a video call so regularly is often too much information to take in. Kat often feels like her mind is foggy because there is so much coming to her – it feels difficult to stay on top of her psychosis experiences, her virtual world, and her in-person world.
WHAT COPING SKILLS CAN BE HELPFUL FOR PSYCHOSIS DURING COVID-19? ARE THEY DIFFERENT FROM PRE-PANDEMIC COPING SKILLS?
It takes some trial and error for an individual to identify the coping skills that are most effective for themselves. The best coping skills are the ones that are accessible to a person whenever they need them. Kat has found being more accepting of her own experiences to be helpful, especially as her symptoms have heightened during the pandemic.
Part of accepting her psychosis has been realizing where it originates. Kat’s psychosis is linked to early childhood trauma. Her first experience with psychosis symptoms wasn’t scary, but comforting – at age five, three women came to her each night to provide comfort in a motherly way. Even though psychosis is often scary, Kat knows that it serves a purpose – it is giving her information or something else that she needs to have. She views her psychosis as something that saved her. Understanding where her psychosis comes from, what visions are coming to her, and why is all a big part of her reaching acceptance. She realized that these visions are her mind’s way of giving her information about her world that she possibly was not seeing. With this context, she recognized that having a trauma-informed therapist was crucial and has found healing through the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of psychotherapy.
The other piece of coping during COVID-19 for Kat was realizing that her psychosis heightens when she doesn’t feel safe. The pandemic has been a time of unease and worry for most people, so it has been especially important for Kat to cultivate safe environments for herself – that’s why she believes in the power of peer support. Spaces where she can be open and honest about her experiences help calm the parts of her that are more suspicious because it gives those parts the safety they crave.
WHAT SHOULD SOMEONE EXPERIENCING THEIR FIRST EPISODE OF PSYCHOSIS DURING THIS TIME KNOW?
It’s not easy being different and misunderstood, and having to continuously explain your experience can get draining. In Kat’s experience, it’s important to look at your psychosis from a perspective of “how is my body protecting itself?” Dealing with psychosis is challenging, and hating your brain for being the way it is adds another layer of distress. Reminding yourself that your symptoms can serve a purpose can reduce the stress that comes from self-judgment.
If you think you might be experiencing symptoms of psychosis, take a mental health screen – sharing your results with a mental health provider is a great first step in finding options to feel better. You can also check out other mental health organizations focused on psychosis, like Hearing Voices Network or Students with Psychosis. If you are in need of immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK, or text “MHA” to 741-741 to talk to a trained counselor from the Crisis Text Line.