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The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is weighing heavily on society but focusing on how we can each support community resilience can bolster our general well-being and mental health.

Having a sense of coming together and being supported during times of crisis can contribute to healthy recovery, says Dr Cobi Calyx, a disaster response and recovery expert from the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW.

Volunteering and connection are associated with good mental health and focusing on ways to volunteer and connect with others while maintaining a safe distance can help.

“Research in disaster response and recovery shows that people’s recovery outcomes depend partly on how they perceive and respond to the event,” Dr Calyx says.

Everyone has a different capacity to help others, but not all these differences are visible, she says.

“Focusing on your own resources and how you can act, rather than judging others’ choices, will support your own mental health as well as community resilience.”

An example occurred on Wednesday night, when a celebrity shared a post with her followers from a desperate parent. The parent was asking for hand sanitiser, as her newborn son just had emergency brain surgery and there was none available where she lived. Someone who wasn’t known to the family saw the post, delivered hand sanitiser, toilet paper, wipes and baby Panadol to help.

Dr Calyx says that keeping healthy and not being a vector – someone who can pass an infection to another – means you’re in the best position to help other people in communities locally and online.

This means keeping a physical distance of at least 1.5 metres from other people, regular handwashing and replacing physical meetings with alternatives.

Dr Calyx recommends that people who are feeling overwhelmed with negative news could consider switching off the news for a while and focusing on gratitude, such as for those on the frontline providing essential services to keep society functioning.

“Research shows that practices such as keeping a gratitude journal, making a list of three new things you’re grateful for today, or writing letters can help change thought patterns. You don’t need to express this gratitude further, it’s your thought process that matters.”

Being grateful doesn’t stop us from continuing to “constructively look for ways that responses can be improved”, she says.

An example of this is the call by leading health and disability researchers for urgent action from state and federal governments to develop a targeted response to COVID-19 for people with disability, their families and others in the disability sector.

Communities are mobilising to support vulnerable members while we await this urgent action from governments.

“If you search #viralkindness on social media there’s a postcard that some people are popping into neighbours’ letterboxes (after washing hands, of course),” Dr Calyx says.

The postcard offers people who are isolating or needing help free support, such as picking up shopping or urgent supplies, posting mail, or just a friendly phone call. 

Kindness postcard

Cristel Chambers kindness postcard, based off the one created by the Red Cross in Adelaide.

Some people are focusing on childcare solutions for frontline health workers, supporting the arts and small businesses online, or sharing hard-to-get goods with others who need them.

“People are supporting each other within their own block of apartments and across the country. There are lots of options depending on your own situation,” Dr Calyx says.

Those who don’t feel comfortable reaching out to neighbours and who have extra time at home can contribute to citizen science through your computer or phone.

Examples include FoldIt, a game enabling people to help researchers find protein structures for future COVID19 treatments.

Or those who want to take a break from the pandemic and focus on nature could help identify plants or animals through the global iNaturalist platform or local DigiVol, or take photos for the upcoming Australian City Nature Challenge

“These volunteer contributions can in future be used in scientific research,” Dr Calyx says.