“There is no health without mental health” were the words famously used by Dr. Brook Chisholm, the first Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO). As the world deals with a global pandemic, the topic of mental health and its impact on the world has never been more critical.
Mental health is the invisible aspect of our health; it is not something we can touch or see, yet it plays a vital role in our ability to complete the activities of daily living. Mental health is not merely the absence of mental health disorders or symptoms; it is a state of overall well-being and productivity.
However, amid a global pandemic, how do you attain this state of overall well-being and productivity? Especially when fear and anxiety seem to be spreading just as quickly as the virus itself. In answer to this, the United Nations, on May 14, 2020, launched the UN policy brief-COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health. It came with a stark warning that there could be as much as a three-fold increase globally in the number of people experiencing mental vulnerability.
TACKLING MENTAL VULNERABILITIES
Mental vulnerabilities have manifested themselves through elevated rates of stress and anxiety, which are normal reactions to an ever-changing and uncertain world. These feelings have been exacerbated by measures such as quarantine that, although necessary in reducing the risk of infection, has inevitably impacted people’s ability to carry out meaningful activities, routines and livelihoods. This, in turn, has increased rates of loneliness, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, self-harm and suicidal behavior. Studies by the Lancet suggest that the most at-risk group are front-line health workers, young people, adolescents, people with pre-existing mental health conditions and those living in the midst of any conflict or crisis. So, it is fair to say by looking at this list that there may not be a single person whose mental health isn’t impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Acknowledging this, how do we insulate ourselves from an unfolding stressful situation? The good news is that, as humans, we have remarkable fortitude and resilience in the face of adversity and crisis. What is resilience and how do we acquire it? In an article by Christy-Belle Geha on psychological resilience, Ghida Husseini, a counselling psychologist, defines resilience as not a synonym of coping but as “the ability to bend with the wind, to flow with the current, to bounce back from a shock, whereas coping is the ability to manage difficult and challenging conditions. Our resilience increases as we learn to cope.”
Building coping mechanisms into our daily routine
For us to attain psychological resilience, we must build coping strategies into our daily routine. This will make it easier for us to cope consistently with this pandemic but also with the daily stressors that occur in everyday life.
PSYCHOLOGICAL RESILIENCE TOOL KIT
1. Avoid excessive exposure to news and media coverage of COVID-19
Constant viewing/listening to media coverage can increase feelings of anxiety and worry.
- Limit your access to the news/social media.
- Turn off mobile device notifications for news/social media outlets.
- Access information from legitimate sources such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Look for the original sources of facts quoted in small snippets in the news, e.g. social media posts. Acquiring the facts for yourself will often help you to make informed decisions and reduce anxiety regarding that topic.
Setting limits will allow you to focus on your life and the aspects within it that you can control.
2. Look after yourself
This may seem like an obvious one, but self-care is vitally important during a pandemic. Neglect of yourself can cause the deterioration of not only your mental health but your physical health as well.
- Write down your daily routine and goals. Research by the Dominican University in California found that you are 42% more likely to achieve your goals and dreams by writing them down regularly. Bringing an element of routine back into your life, as well the review of daily achievements, has a two-fold effect: It will help you accept the things you cannot change and also provide you with the courage to change the things that are in your control.
- Acknowledge how you are feeling. It is normal to feel stressed, anxious or even overwhelmed by the current situation. Permit yourself to feel this way but also give yourself an outlet for these emotions. Talking to others, writing down your feelings, exercising and mediation are all excellent methods for managing these feelings.
- Use the current lockdown restrictions to cook healthy meals and exercise at least once a day, which could be something as simple as taking a walk.
- Take time to meditate or allow your mind to be still. Relaxing your mind can help with the promotion of positive thoughts and feelings.
Taking a holistic approach to your well-being will help you to build overall resilience to the challenges of this world. Implementing good self-care will also mean you are better prepared to look after yourself and others.
3. Seek professional support
The Royal College of General Practitioners fear that “although people are still living with long-term conditions and becoming sick with non-COVID related illnesses, they are not seeking medical attention. Leaving physical or mental issues undiagnosed or untreated could have severe consequences to your long-term health.
- If you are concerned about your health in any way, access medical care. Healthcare providers are working hard in the community to continue to provide care to all who need it, not just COVID-19 patients.
- Ask yourself: Would I have accessed help concerning this condition if there was not a pandemic? If that answer is yes, then you need to seek help.
- Contact your local healthcare provider and gain the support you require.
Seeking medical help for your physical or mental health will put your mind at ease and will often go a long way in helping you feel better faster. It will also help prevent further deterioration of your overall health.
4. Positive thinking
During this pandemic, a lot of the words we hear carry the weight of uncertainty. This can increase the frequency of intrusive or negative thoughts and feelings of hopelessness.
- Write down all the positive things you have in your life, as this often gives you perspective.
- Take time to find the positive stories and experiences related to the pandemic. For every story related to something negative, there are just as many positive ones. Stories of people surviving COVID-19 and of communities supporting one another provide great examples. They show the very best of humanity and its ability to rise to the occasion.
- Think of your brain as a roulette wheel or a generator of thoughts. On occasion, the thoughts generated are not positive. When your mind lands on a negative thought, reflect in that moment and move your thoughts on.
- Remember that a thought is just a thought and not an action.
- Speak about your thoughts to others and seek professional help if you feel your intrusive thoughts are overwhelming you.
Seeking opportunities to be hopeful is not being unrealistic. In fact, by doing so, you’re taking an active step towards becoming a realistic optimist. This means you acknowledge the current situation for what it is and you realise that no situation lasts forever. A realistic optimist leans on history to inform their optimism. For instance, history has taught us that when humanity bands together with one common goal, we can often come up with a solution. In this pandemic, the entire world is working diligently on finding a vaccination and an effective treatment plan, so we can be hopeful of a breakthrough.
5. The power of human connectivity
During a time when we have enforced lockdown and are restricted from meeting with our families and friends, keeping in touch has never been more important.
- Follow your local and national rules on meeting physically with people you know.
- Keep in touch with people through telephone calls and virtual platforms, like Zoom.
- Take the time to write a letter – this form of communication has decreased in recent times. However, people have more free time now. Write a letter, even if it is via email. Receiving such a letter may enrich someone’s day.
- Use the lockdown as an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends you have been meaning to get in touch with. Make a list of these individuals and allocate time to reconnect with them.
- Check-in on vulnerable people you may know, such as neighbors and friends. As well as those who may be living on their own. This can be done through a simple telephone call.
By connecting with others, we raise morale and the feeling that we are all in this together and together we can prevail.
COVID-19 has brought new challenges in terms of protecting our mental health. However, by integrating positive coping strategies into our daily routines, building psychological resilience is achievable. One of the greatest coping strategies we can demonstrate during this pandemic is extending care, compassion and empathy to one another. People, in the haze of this pandemic, may forget all of the day-to-day events that occurred, but they will not forget how others made them feel and the support that was extended to them during this time. Never forget that even in the midst of a pandemic, we all have the capacity to show the best that humanity has to offer.
Otibho Edeke-Agbareh is a Guest Contributor. Otibho is Humanitarian Services Manager at Kenyon International Emergency Services where she is responsible for Kenyon’s Disaster Human Services Program and maintaining Kenyon’s Family Assistance Services.