Self-isolating: what to do if you are worried for someone’s mental or physical safety during COVID-19

14 May 2020
Self-isolating: what to do if you are worried for someone’s mental or physical safety during COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic many Australians have been required to stay at home, work from home, isolate or quarantine, while many others have become unemployed as a result of these important public health requirements. These changes have put pressure on Australians in a variety of ways and this pressure is likely to be ongoing for many.

In the following weeks and months you may notice a friend, family member or work colleague is struggling to cope. You may even be concerned they are not safe at home, either physically or mentally.

Relationships Australia WA recommends our free online training tool, Connect for Mental Health, which helps you recognise the signs that someone may be struggling, and has information on how to reach out and support that person. 

Here are some tips on how you can check in on someone who may be struggling during COVID-19:

Step 1. Take notice of the signs of mental health decline:

People can show they are struggling mentally in many different ways and you might be the first to notice something is off. Common changes you may see in someone’s behaviour are:

  • Low mood – withdrawn, unhappy, short-tempered.
  • Changes in behaviour, appearance or attitude.
  • Self-criticism, self-blame.
  • Increased alcohol use.
  • Complaints about difficulty with sleep, tiredness, low motivation, or feeling anxious with worries that they can’t shake off.
  • Other abnormal changes that can tell you ‘something is off’ and indicate the person is struggling.

Step 2. If circumstances permit, choose a time to talk that's good for you both. Some things to check include:

  • Are you able to help without getting swept up in their problems?
  • Do you and/or the person have enough time to talk?
  • Can you give them your full attention?
  • Is there enough privacy to talk?
  • Are there any distractions you can remove?

Step 3. Try to find out what’s going on for the person and reach out to them by:

  • Asking “how are you doing during this tough time of COVID-19?”
  • Starting the conversation by telling them what you are finding difficult about isolation and/or the COVID-19 changes, and then asking “how are you going?” This shows there is no expectation they should be managing well in the current situation.
  • Checking with other appropriate ways, for example, “I’ve noticed you haven’t been joining our video chats lately. Are you OK? What’s happening for you?

When reaching out, it is important to be fully present with the person. Ensure you are gentle with your tone and approach, leave judgement aside, and be ready to listen.

Step 4:  Practise good listening skills

  • Show you are listening – convey this with your body language.
  • Listen to what they say AND try to understand how they are FEELING.
  • Stop talking.
  • Allow the person to talk freely.
  • Be comfortable with the silence.

Step 5: Use empathy when you respond

Empathy refers to the ability to 'walk in someone else's shoes' and it creates great connection between humans, The keys to empathy are to:

  • Refrain from judgement.
  • Try to see the problem from the person’s perspective, rather than your own.
  • Notice the emotions that the other person is feeling.
  • Summarise their feelings using your own words or the same words they have said, and reflect this back to the person – this way they feel heard and understood.

Support tips

Once you have checked in with the person you are concerned about, it is important to support the person yourself or, if needed, enlist the support of others.

  • Support rather than rescue

Support can come in many forms and depends on the person, your relationship with them and the situation itself. Except if we think the person is in danger, we usually don't need to 'rescue' or act on their behalf. Rather, we can support them - we can listen, be empathetic and help them think of ways to use their strengths and resources to start to feel better or to solve their problem.

  • Participate with them

COVID-19 isolation may also be causing loneliness. Depending on the person, you may find a way to do activities together to keep connection and make the days more interesting. Here are some ideas to suggest:

- A quiz night over a video chat or phone call.

- Going for a walk together, while social distancing.

- Starting a virtual book club.

- Starting an art or craft challenge comparing each other’s efforts over a video chat.

  • Suggest support services

If the person requires further mental or emotional support and you don't have the resources or knowledge to help, then would be appropriate to suggest a support service. This may involve counselling at Relationships Australia WA or other support services.

For people who may be struggling financially, there are emergency relief services in WA that can help in these circumstances, such as Foodbank, St Vincent de Paul Society and Anglicare. 

Supporting someone at risk of suicide

Sometimes we worry that a person may be at risk of suicide and don’t know how to reach out. We may think we might make the situation worse,, or not know what to say if they say ‘yes’.  However, it is OK to ask - it will not put the idea of suicide into their head, and you asking might save their life. 

  1. If the person confirms they are having suicidal thoughts, be empathetic and gently ask for more detail. If they have a clear plan, and the means to act on that plan, call an ambulance on 000 or support them to attend their local hospital emergency department. If this is not possible, stay with the person and remove any means of suicide. Help the person think of ways to stay safe, and call the Mental Health Emergency Response Line on 1300 555 788 to help you decide what to do next.
  2. If the person has suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm, but is not planning to act on them, link the person with professional help as soon as possible, and let them know you are there for them. Tell them you will follow up and, of course, make sure you do! 
  3. Seek more information for yourself and/or for the person involved. Mental Health Helplines in WA providing professional help can be found in one place here.

Don't forget to look after yourself in the supporting process.

Supporting someone in a crisis is never easy.  It is important to enlist the help and support of others, not only for the person in crisis, but for yourself too.  Remember to take time out for yourself and engage in self-care activities. Relationships Australia WA has a tip sheet on Self Care, and a video that may assist you with learning more on this important topic.

Family and Domestic Violence

If you have concerns your friend, family member or work colleague is unsafe, either physically or emotionally, due to conflict within their home, try to engage them over the phone, or via technology privately. If you sense the person may not be able to speak freely, or have limited access to their technology, ask closed questions where they can answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example:

  • Are you feeling comfortable at home?
  • Are you finding there is more conflict at home because everyone is together all of the time?
  • Is the conflict becoming physical in any way?
  • Are you safe right now?
  • Do you need immediate help? If yes, call 000.
  • Do you want me to ask the police to attend for a welfare check?

Setting up a code word

If you are in touch with the person when they can speak freely, set up a code word or phrase that they can tell you over the phone or message to you if they are in immediate danger. Agree that when they tell you this phrase over the phone you will call the police immediately to attend their residence. 

For further support and resources on Family and Domestic Violence, please visit our Family and Domestic Violence services page here.

Seeking Help

Relationships Australia WA is continuing to deliver support services for people across Western Australia during this unprecedented and difficult time - over the telephone, by video conferencing or online to clients.

If you or your family could use a little help, we offer many services and courses that are available to everyone, including mental health and family and domestic violence support. Our services are available to people of all cultural backgrounds, family structure, gender and sexual orientation.

Please call us on 1300 364 277 to let us know how we can support you and your family.

For more support resources to help you during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit our resource centre here.

If you need immediate support, please contact:

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Suicide Line on 1300 651 251

Mensline on 1300 78 99 78 

Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800