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WATCH: 5 questions about mental health during the pandemic answered by an expert

As the number of COVID-19 cases increases in the U.S. and stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders continue, the coronavirus pandemic is also causing a strain on mental health.

PBS NewsHour senior national correspondent Amna Nawaz spoke with Dr. Joshua Gordon about the best ways to mitigate stress during the pandemic. Gordon is the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the lead federal agency for research on mental disorders.

Watch the video player above for answers to your questions about mental health in the midst of this pandemic. Or read some highlights below.

What can you do to take care of yourself?

In this period of isolation and anxiety, Gordon recommends staying on top of three key things in an effort to protect your mental health: Take care of your body, take care of your mind and maintain your social connections.

A helpful way to stay mentally healthy is to make sure the rest of your body is healthy, which means opting for healthy meals and trying to exercise each day. Gordon says taking walks can be beneficial to your health, as long as you maintain social distancing while outside.

It’s often difficult to know the appropriate amount of anxiety you should be feeling.

Gordon suggests asking yourself: “Are you doing the things you need to do?” 

Some examples: Can you still buy groceries and make food? Can you take care of your kids? Can you get up at a normal time in the morning? If so, then you’re probably doing okay, he said. If not, it’s prudent to seek help, either from your support systems, or from professionals.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration now has a dedicated space related to concerns about COVID-19.

Being purposeful about maintaining your social connections can serve to be helpful during this time of social distancing. “Connecting with people around you can really help,” Gordon said.

What can you do to take care of others?

Even before the pandemic hit, about 20% of Americans had experienced, or were experiencing, some form of depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Any kind of stress can exacerbate any kind of mental illnesses,” Gordon said.

Because of this, it’s more important than ever to keep an eye on your friends and family who may have a history of suicidal ideation or self harm.

If you think someone might be in trouble, Gordon advises to just “reach out and ask.”

Many believe even asking a person if they’ve been thinking about self harm can be damaging, but that’s not the case, according to Gordon.

If they confirm your suspicions, it’s helpful to guide them towards calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can even reach out yourself to receive guidance and tips for how to help others.

What do you do when a loved one has passed in the midst of this pandemic?

For many, the pain of a death is only compounded by the inability to grieve with others because of the pandemic.

In these times, Gordon says it’s especially important to seek help among your community, support systems and trusted professionals.

“Depression is something you want to deal with right away,” he said.

He said to consider what others have already done and hold a virtual wake for those who have passed. This could also be a time to join or begin organizing a community-wide ceremony in honor of those who have passed, when it is safe enough.

“We can anticipate that this will end,” without knowing when, Gordon said.

How do you deal with the disturbing information coming in?

As many of us remain glued to our devices, watching the stream of terrible news and images come through, Gordon recommends some ways to maintain good mental health.

“Focus on facts … so you’re not getting carried away by rumor and opinion,” he said.

He also suggests we “take a break from those images” by turning off the news an hour before sleep, focusing on meditation, spending time with loved ones or reading from a physical book.

Besides avoiding the news when it gets too much to bear, Gordon also recommends “reframing” the images we see. The pictures of hospital workers show commendable heroism, and all the disturbing images of people wearing masks show how diligent the world has become in taking care of each other.

“Just that act of cognitively reframing the image in a positive way can be helpful.” Gordon said.

How do you help kids during the pandemic?

Children are also deeply affected by the abrupt and scary changes in their lives.

Gordon says the most important thing to do right now is find out what’s going on in their heads.

“Don’t assume that what you’re worried about is what your kids are worried about,” he said.

That way, it becomes easier to address their concerns.

For young children, it’s especially important to maintain structure since “a lot of their lives are already disrupted.”

Maintaining regular eating habits (breakfast, lunch and dinner), finding time for recreation together and making sure they stay on track with school work, let’s kids know that “things have changed, but things are okay.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).