Michael Abrahams | Protecting your mental health during COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rack up casualties. Every day new cases are being diagnosed as the disease spreads. We have a fair idea of how many people are infected and of death rates as data is readily available, even though we will never know the full extent of the physical damage done by the plague as some authorities do not test as much as they could, some will under-report and some people will die without being diagnosed, especially those who pass away at home and in nursing care facilities.
However, what is even more challenging to quantify are the effects of the pandemic on our mental health. The global crisis has caused and continues to induce severe psychological trauma. Recently, one evening after the news was broadcast on one of our local networks, I received a call from a dear friend of mine. She had watched the programme and told me she was traumatised by the stories of people whose lives were affected by the pandemic and the measures taken to contain it, such as lockdowns. During our conversation she broke down and began to cry. She is an attorney-at-law and I jokingly told her that I had no idea that lawyers have feelings. (Yes, she still speaks to me).
But I understand her trauma. These are stressful times. The looming threat of being infected and becoming ill is scary. We are fighting a war against an enemy that is invisible, at least to the naked eye, and the mere thought of it is spooky. The fact that there are so many uncertainties and unknowns that exist about the virus and the disease it causes is very unsettling. We are unclear about just how much immunity people who recover from the infection have against the virus, as there are stories of persons being reinfected. We are unable to say when a reliable vaccine will be available. We do not know if or when second waves of the infection will hit certain countries or regions. We have no idea when the pandemic will end. And as we learn new information about the disease, the narratives regarding vulnerability and prognosis keep changing. For example, at first, we were told that the disease was really a problem for older folks and people with pre-existing conditions. Now we see young and previously healthy people being killed by the virus. I have seen the issue of managing COVID-19 described as being akin to “building an aeroplane while flying it”, and I absolutely agree.
These uncertainties are enough to freak us out, in addition to the reality of people’s livelihoods being affected, from pay cuts to losing jobs to being on the verge of being destitute, if not already in that situation. And when you add the distress of those who have lost loved ones, including breadwinners, those who have recovered from the disease and are mentally traumatised, those who have been stigmatised, those who are quarantined, isolated or forced to stay home with toxic or abusive family members and spouses, and those who are stranded and unable to return home because of border closures, the extent of the psychological morbidity becomes painfully obvious.
A very important aspect of coping with this pandemic is to manage our mental health. Social distancing means separation from some of the people who help us to feel happy and comfortable, although it may also give us a break from people who antagonise us as well. But humans need contact, so it is important to keep in touch with those we love and attach importance to. Thankfully, modern technology facilitates this. This is also an excellent opportunity, especially if you have Internet access, to learn new skills and educate yourself about subjects you have an interest in but may not have found the time to explore previously, or to read books or watch movies or documentaries that will inform and entertain you.
Exercising and practising relaxation techniques are also great ways of managing stress. It is important to keep up to date regarding the best measures to take to protect yourself and those around you, but care must also be taken not to be obsessed with the news. There are a lot of negative stories out there, both real and fake, and you must be mindful of your sources and how much negativity you expose yourself to. Try your best to avoid conversations with pessimists, drama queens, rumour-mongers, conspiracy theorists and those who seek to politicise the crisis. This is also a great time to perform random acts of kindness, such as travelling with extra masks and giving them to people who need them, or offering to help the elderly and vulnerable who are shut in.
If things become overwhelming and you are unable to cope, please reach out to a mental health professional if you can. There is nothing wrong with trying to get help. The principles of handwashing, respiratory hygiene, social distancing and wearing masks for physical protection are well known, and ought to be followed, but we must also not neglect our mental health.