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Compassion and Mental Health in a Time of Global Health Crisis

February 14, 2020
By Zhen Xu, PhD Candidate in Clinical Psychology

In the past few weeks, news of the coronavirus outbreak became top headlines in various news outlets throughout the world. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak as a global health emergency of international concern. Several cities in China with the most cases of infection have been placed under quarantine. Airlines cancelled flights to and from China, and major multinational businesses have halted operations there as a result. Governments of various countries evacuated their citizens from the quarantined areas. Face masks and sanitizers have been flying off shelves and sold out in many locations worldwide. One can sense how the coronavirus impacted the world in just a few short weeks.

    While the world is focused on containing and stopping the spread of this virus, with medical experts around the world studying and trying to develop vaccines to fight it, hardly anyone has paid attention to its effects on people’s mental health. Panic and anxiety surrounding the outbreak appear to spread faster than the virus itself. Furthermore, public fear of the coronavirus is fueling racist sentiment and prejudice targeting Asians. Individuals of Asian descent around the world are reporting an increasing number of incidents of racism and xenophobia. They describe the experience as isolating and discriminatory as they face public blame for “spreading the virus”, stereotyping jokes, stares, odd looks, derogatory and dehumanizing comments, online and offline mockery. Racist headlines appeared in newspapers around the world regarding the coronavirus. Students of Asian descent at various college and university campuses report that they are seen as “walking pathogens”, and some even try to suppress coughs on campuses and public transit to avoid making others uncomfortable. Businesses in some parts of the world have posted signs telling customers from mainland China that they are not welcome. School children of Asian descent around the world and their parents also describe their increasing experiences of bullying in the classroom. The list of prejudiced incidents continues. 

    Many international students and immigrants of Asian descent around the world are at the center of these types of treatment. In addition to academic/work pressures, culture shock, adjustment issues, linguistic/cultural barriers, these individuals now also face increased prejudice, which can increase mental health problems, such as social isolation, worrying, sleep and concentration problems, as well as feelings rejection, depression, anxiety, and helplessness. Moreover, many international students and immigrants have family and loved ones in China whom they are worried about and they feel helpless being so far away from them. Misleading and false health information is also spreading, including inaccurate speculation about the cause of the virus, various odd healing methods, and warnings to avoid Asian-populated areas and Asian cuisine. All of the above continue to fuel racist and xenophobic behaviours, public fears, anger, anxiety, hypervigilance of one’s health, and social withdrawal, instead of bringing people together to fight the outbreak. 

    It can be overwhelming to see news articles and reports in the media on this on a daily basis. In fact, since the beginning of 2020, the world has already suffered numerous tragedies, deaths, natural disasters one after another, political/regional conflicts, and now the coronavirus outbreak. In a time like this, it is normal to feel fear due to all of the uncertainty, but let’s not let these factors divide us. It is essential for our mental health that people show support and act with kindness and compassion toward one another in a time of crisis. We have been advised abundantly on how to reduce spreading the coronavirus and protect our physical health, but what can we also do to improve our mental health during this challenging time?

  1. If you are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of news updates surrounding the coronavirus, limit your time of exposure to all news outlets to 30 minutes per day.
  2. While it may be important to stay updated with accurate information, try not to check your cell phone/social media (or any other news source) first thing in the morning when you wake up, so that you do not begin the day feeling overwhelmed. Wait until your planned break later in the day to check.
  3. Resist the urge to engage in online discussions or disputes if others’ comments on there upset you. Step away from your screen and apply steps 1 and 2.
  4. Do not trust misleading false health information on the internet. Accurate information is helpful to reduce uncertainty and fear, but misinformation can fuel fear. If you would like accurate and up-to-date information, go to trusted information sources such as the World Health Organization’s official website, the Canadian federal government’s updates, and the Quebec provincial government’s recommendations below:




5. For those who recently returned from China and are in self or mandatory quarantine, stay in touch digitally with people who love and care about you. Know that you are very much wanted, loved, and supported. 

6. For those who have family/friends currently in China, show your moral support and kindness to them. Try to stay calm to avoid increasing public panic.

What can we do to be more compassionate toward those physically/psychologically affected by the outbreak?

  1. Develop your compassionate self: put yourself in their shoes, take their perspective for a moment, and make a conscious effort to think, feel, and act compassionately toward those affected. 
  2. Be culturally sensitive with your comments both online (e.g., on social media) and in person.
  3. Show your support to someone around you if they seem to be affected by the outbreak and share these tips with them if you sense that they need help with their anxiety about the outbreak.  

Although there have been various intimidating reports in the media recently regarding the coronavirus outbreak, the most effective practice to stay mentally healthy is to limit exposure to the media to accurate, up-to-date sources, to support one another both physically and psychologically and to be compassionate toward those around us who are suffering. 


About the author

Zhen Xu received her PhD in Clinical Psychology at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec, and is a psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.