Health officials say practicing social distancing is vital to preventing the spread of the coronavirus. While that is good for our physical health, the practice can have more complicated effects for our mental health.

Social distancing can lead to social isolation, which while discouraging for most people, is especially hard for people with diagnosed mental health and substance abuse challenges, an area mental health professional says.

“It does have an effect on folks’ mental health,” Keith Hamm, community liaison with Integrated Family Services, said, referring to social distancing and work-from-home situations.

Some people also are in a state of panic because of the virus “and being isolated does not help that,” he said.

Hamm said if someone already is struggling with substance abuse issues, their condition can be worsen by anxiety, social distancing and fear of what will happen.

He said people can become obsessed by such questions as: How long will I be out of work? and How long will my kids be out of school?

“The anxiety in this is we don’t know where this is going to end,” Hamm continued. “There’s not an actual end to this that we can see.”

If you are practicing social distancing at home, either alone or with your kids, there are a number of things you can do to improve your outlook, he said.

“Ask yourself what brings you hope, joy or peace,” Hamm suggested.

For example, maybe you used to enjoy reading or journaling. It might help to try spending some time doing those things again, he said.

“None of them are magic,” Hamm said of such activities. “But fill your time with things that bring you joy or that are productive.”

One productive thing you can do, he said, is call elderly friends or family members, or stay in touch with them through social media.

“We always feel better when we help others,” Hamm said.

If you have a family member at a nursing home and can’t visit them in their room you should check to see if you can go outside their window and visit that way, he said.

And if you don’t know a nursing home personally, some nursing homes have also said cards could be addressed to “any resident” with the facility’s mailing address.

Hamm said the social isolation that’s resulting from the coronavirus crisis is especially hard on people who are already depressed or have a substance abuse problem. They can use mobile crisis services, which are available by calling 866-437-1821.

But you don’t have to suffer from a diagnosed mental illness to be affected by loneliness and isolation, he noted.

People who are at home alone can chat online with a qualified mental health professsional at intergratedfamilyservices.net.

Asked about the panic buying and hoarding of supplies that has become widespread since the coronavirus crisis started, Hamm said he believes two big factors are at work. One is that people see others doing it and it leads to a sense of shared panic.

The other is that it is one thing people feel like they can control in the midst of a chaotic situation.

“They feel like that gives them a sense of control in a situation that they cannot control,” he said.

State officials have suggested that while stocking up on additional supplies might be a good idea, buying enormous quantities and hoarding them isn’t because it deprives other people of things they may need.

Hamm said he hasn’t yet seen an uptick in calls for crisis services since the shift to staying at home began for many people. But he said that could change.

“I think it’s a little early still,” Hamm said.