Matt Simon

One of the few bright sides of the coronavirus catastrophe is that it landed at a time in human history when isolation doesn’t need to mean total isolation. Through the magic of computers and phones you can stare into a piece of glass and electronics and see grandma and grandpa. You can remotely consult with your physician.

And now there’s a new way to get mental health treatment: The National Center for PTSD just dropped an app called Covid Coach, a tool that helps people manage stress. It offers breathing exercises and guidance for tackling loneliness and irritability. It lets users track their anxiety and moods. It’s loaded with resources for getting help with problems like substance abuse or domestic violence. It’s available for free in the Apple and Android app stores.

“It’s not that the app is going to pay rent for someone if they’ve lost their job,” says Beth Jaworski, team lead for Covid Coach and a psychologist at the National Center for PTSD, which is part of the US Department of Veterans Affairs. But Covid Coach provides free information about coping strategies, and helps people apply for unemployment or find nearby food pantries. “We’ve tried to put those all together and neatly organized them for folks that may be struggling with a lot of things right now,” Jaworski says.

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Covid Coach grew out of two separate projects. The VA already has a surprisingly long history of making apps, like PTSD Coach, which helps veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The second component came from research done in Sonoma, California, following devastating wildfires there in recent years. The agency has become “this well-oiled machine for putting out evidence-informed psychological resources for veterans and beyond,” says Adrienne Heinz, a clinical research psychologist at the PTSD center. “So we already had an infrastructure to do this, and we were able to do it quite quickly.”

So what do military service, trauma from losing a home in a wildfire, and the pandemic all have in common? Uncertainty. A soldier doesn’t know when they might be shot at, a homeowner doesn’t know if they’ll lose everything in a wildfire, and all of us don’t know what might happen next during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Those are the key ingredients to creating PTSD: having stressors where it’s uncertain, uncontrolled, and unpredictable,” says Karestan Koenen, a psychologist at Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, who wasn’t involved in this project.

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Covid Coach is an attempt at resolving some of that uncertainty as people deal with a surreal situation. You can chart your anxiety symptoms day to day, and even schedule a daily “Worry Time” in which you can sequester your anxieties and work on getting control over your ruminations. You can listen to peaceful ambient noises—the marsh one is nice, and there’s a public pool option, if you find yourself missing that kind of space.

The goal is not to escape entirely—after all, it’s hard to get lost in the tiny screen of a smartphone, and that’s not particularly realistic if you’ve got a house full of kids or a busy job that demands your constant presence on Zoom. But take it on a walk around the neighborhood, maybe. “Another part of mindfulness exercises is not judging if you get distracted,” says Heinz. “OK, notice that thought. Roll with it, and then come back when you’re ready. It’s not saying: This is how you have to do it.”

One of the odd parts of this public health crisis is that while we’re all severely restricted in what we can do and where we can go day to day, apps and telemedicine are actually making mental health care more flexible for more people. For folks who have anxieties about the outside world, or who have limited mobility, these technologies can make it easier to connect with a therapist. “These are all people for whom this type of access to care can be life-changing,” says Joshua Morganstein, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disasters, who wasn’t involved in this work. “So an important aspect of what we think about now—and not later, but now—is what opportunities exist to create a more systemic and sustained enhancement to the ability of people to access needed care and to deliver it in ways that suit their needs.”

In the meantime, breathe deep and take in the melodic sounds of a public swimming pool.


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