Wed | May 27, 2020

Fighting COVID-19 fear - Experts urge Jamaicans to fortify the mind during pandemic

Published:Wednesday | April 1, 2020 | 12:18 AM

Driven by fear, panicked shoppers have laid supermarkets bare as anxieties spike against the flurry of WhatsApp messages, many of which spout unfounded rumours and just plain bad advice. Welcome to the age of the modern pandemic and the many ways it’s bearing down on our collective well-being.

If there was one word to sum up how people are feeling now, it’s fearful. It means that if Jamaicans are going to triumph in this unprecedented time, we must work at eradicating or greatly minimising this sense of doom. Safeguarding your psyche begins with confronting your fears and finding healthy ways to manoeuvre its effects, first with an understanding of the relationship between fear and knowledge.

“People fear what they don’t understand. They spread this fear when they do not have adequate knowledge of a situation, or they have false information,” explains Kevin Bailey, associate counselling psychologist at Family Life Ministries. “The term ‘pandemic’ already has a strong negative connotation for many. Quite easily, it makes them feel fearful, anxious and confused. The result being that a lot of their actions are driven by an understanding forged from fear.”

Without a proactive approach, unchecked fear can all too easily evolve into full-blown hysteria. Global research indicates that the increase in social media usage correlates with an increase in the spread of mass hysteria. The increased use of social media during this time of quarantine as well as the emotional distress engendered by posts play a central role in the development and spread of population-wide hysteria and anxiety. A key step to preventing this is understanding and avoiding the factors that facilitate the transmission of negative attitudes across social networks.

Bailey noted several factors that contribute to the spread of fear. “These include the fact that technology makes it easy to share ‘fake news’ on social media, and journalists add to the frenzy with a sensational style of reporting which include a lot of images related to COVID-19 deaths, shortages of supplies, empty streets and deserted communities. Also, this is the first time many of us are experiencing anything like this, so we believe it is worse than it is in actuality.”

Personal and corporate responsibility

How then can a population anxious about their safety stave off attacks of the mind? Everyone is encouraged to trade in their paranoia for a proactive approach towards their mental health. Much of the panic and its accompanying behaviours start with a mind that has been compromised by false or embellished information. This fact makes it all the more necessary to gauge how we consume information about the current situation, and intensify our mental robustness.

“During times of crisis, we may experience unprecedented stress and distress. Since our psychological state affects every decision that we make, it’s crucial that in these times we pay very close attention to our mental health. We can dismiss fear and take care of our minds by utilising our support systems, engaging in exercise and meaningful activities, and just keeping our thoughts and attitude positive. Above all else, being reliably informed is paramount. It is important that we get the correct information from sources such as the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the World Health Organization, and that we follow through on all their suggestions,” Bailey urged.

While much of the immediate future seems uncertain, the long-term recovery of the nation and its economy is still very much a possibility. To make this a reality, it is up to everyone to adopt a personal responsibility for protecting their health and safety.

Corporate Jamaica can, and should, also play an integral role in helping to keep the economy afloat. There has never been a better time for company leaders to champion positive work habits and inspire their teams to follow suit. This responsibility also includes preparing employees for reintegration into the work environment, which might be alongside colleagues who were directly affected by COVID-19.

Occupational health and office services manager at Red Stripe, Veronica Benain, noted, “As we stay connected with our Red Stripe staff working remotely, we have to bear in mind the psychological effects that this crisis has had on everyone. Through our internal channels, we provide actionable tips to our employees, reminding them to maintain a healthy diet and healthy mind. We believe it’s crucial that other corporate entities do the same in order to preserve the backbone of Jamaica’s economy while we conduct the largest experiment in working from home.”

Benain suggests three measures companies can take to help their employees through this crisis. “For starters, they can respond thoughtfully to concerns and avoid reacting from a place of fear or frustration. Companies can then use this as an opportunity to build trust throughout their organisation by promoting accountability and consistency. They can also ensure that each employee has a clear understanding of the company’s plan to overcome the crisis. As corporate leaders, it is important that we respond to the emotional distress of our employees with open communication, trust and resilience.”