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OP-EDS

Mental health – the pandemic behind the pandemic

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In addition to the health pandemic we are, unsurprisingly, in the midst of a global mental-health pandemic. Instead of hiding behind whispers and closed doors, mental health has, unfortunately and out of necessity, become a pervasive hot topic. The stigma has, in part, been eroded, as we have a sense that the uncertainty and huge challenge of our times effects all of us, albeit in different ways.

Mental health isn’t just the absence of mental illness, it also refers to functionality, resilience, and ability to cope and self-regulate at least most of the time. Of course, there are bad days, but generally, if functioning at work, at home, or in regard to other relationships isn’t impaired, we experience “normal” reactions to an unprecedented, abnormal global situation.

Having said this, the pandemic has served as an incubator, with high levels of depression and anxiety launched by loss and uncertainty.

Initially, I resented the term “new normal” and would talk only about “now normal”, which encompassed the belief that we wouldn’t be forced to settle for this, and that our world mostly as we knew it was awaiting us on the horizon.

What has transpired, however, is that the horizon is being extended and in addition to the anxiety, sadness, and fear that spills out everywhere, there’s also an identifiable unnamed feeling precipitated by the extent and duration of unfamiliar and scary ways of being.

The losses and feelings are expected and obvious. Fear of contracting the virus, fear of isolation, uncertainty about the future, and loss of control. The losses are unprecedented. Unquestionably, most of all is the loss of life without the capacity or necessary rituals associated with severe illness, death, and mourning. Beloved family members are on their own at a time when they need us most.

Often, there is the lack of closure and the inability to pay our respects according to our culturally comforting way. Then there is the overwhelming sadness and anger because “it’s just not fair!”

There are also job losses, which generate a lack of purpose and money, fuelling fear of survival. All of this is in an environment of loss of predictability, certainty, routine, physical contact, and some degree of emotional connectedness.

Boundaries have become blurred. We don’t work “from home”, we work “with home”, parents becoming teachers, children online, limited socialisation, adults having no transitional time, teenagers skipping milestones and rituals concerned with the development of their identity. All of this has required courageous conversation, task negotiation, and often an unsuccessful attempt at establishing any kind of personal boundaries or appropriate self-compassion.

Often, our clients are embarrassed to step forward as what they’re feeling may be unnamed. “It’s just a lack of motivation and energy” they say, a lethargy, a tiredness, and an inability to flourish, a sense of resignation.

In this way, so many of us feel dissociated and de-personalised, not connected enough with “my life as I knew it” and with the outside world. “Who am I?” is a regular question.

These feelings are usually associated with diagnosable mental illness but at these times, appear societally contagious. All you need to do is state your case with openness, vulnerability, and authenticity, and you will open a floodgate, if not an echo chamber, of people who tell you they know exactly what you are talking about because they’re feeling the same thing.

So what do we do?

First, to tame it you have to name it. It’s counterproductive to try to dismiss or deny your personal reality. If you don’t own the story, the story will own you, and will manifest through disassociation withdrawal, or prolonged sadness that can become depression, irritation, low frustration tolerance, and the inability to self-regulate. There may also be physical symptoms like headaches, lower back pain, and appetite and sleep disturbances.

Now, more than ever, we need to experience the immeasurable power of empathic support. This means to develop trust in the people who “have your back”, who will listen to understand, who will really “get it”, and won’t pre-empt you with their own story, at least not initially.

Your tribe, and it can be a tribe of one, will check in, show genuine interest, and understand that love and care are verbs – doing things, not just talking about things. And, usually the “doing thing” is being there and listening. You feel recognised, validated, understood, and not crazy!

Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, it’s essential. You cannot be available for anyone else unless you feel worthy of your own compassion and self-care. This starts with the basics. Good nutrition, enough sleep, and understanding the importance of exercise – which should never be underestimated in relation to mental health. Take care of your children’s parent, of your parents’ child, and of your boss’s employee.

Conflict often manifests when you have time and space in your head, and unresolved issues and relationships emerge and become toxic. It’s difficult to remember that it’s always more important to be happy than to win.

The pandemic has made us realise that life can change in a heartbeat, and what we thought was under our control might not be. It also has resulted in a priority shift. Mostly, a new priority of relationships and gratitude for connection that we now realise is more important than anything. So take a risk, and make the first move, even without a guarantee. People can’t hear what you don’t say.

And please, cut yourself some slack. Recognise the resilience that you have displayed, the obstacles that you have overcome, and the value that is uniquely you.

We move on by remembering the past, using our experiences and memories, and reimagining and creating a better future – the horizon is getting closer!

We will navigate the journey together.

  • Dorianne Weil (Dr D) is a clinical psychologist.

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