May is Mental Health Awareness month. It’s an important area to shine a spotlight on, particularly now. While Mental Health isn’t a new concern by any measure, it seems to have become a more prominent one during COVID-19.
It seems that when it comes to the definition of mental health itself, there’s some confusion. Terms like mental health and mental illness are used interchangeably when in fact, they shouldn’t be. When we use the term mental health, it’s referring to our mental well-being: the emotions, thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing, our problem solving abilities and resilience in overcoming challenges. The people that form our social connections also play a significant role in our mental well being.
Each and every one of us has mental health, similar to the concept that every one of us has physical health. The state of our health in each of these areas is fluid, depending on a variety of circumstances, and neither one is more important than the other. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) stresses that, “There is no health without mental health.” WHO claims that while not everyone will experience mental illness over the course of their lives, almost all of us will be challenged with mental health issues (in Canada, that estimate is 1 in 5 people). A good comparison is to consider that just as people have challenges with their physical well-being on occasion, the same dynamic occurs with our mental well-being.
There are other aspects people discuss often in regards to their overall well-being – financial health being another example. This leads me to the thought that ironically, as much of the attention over the past few months has been dedicated to the economic impact of COVID-19 – it’s important to remember that this did not originate as an economic crisis – it is a public health crisis, with a severe economic fallout. It is however, significantly different than preceding financial crises, most notably because of the pace. There was nothing gradual about this crisis. We shut down our offices and cities in an unprecedented pace. And we have felt the pain, in more ways than one.
While we took immediate preventative measure to prevent the spread of the virus, experts are starting to realize that there has never been a “social experiment” of this magnitude, and are warning people that in addition to the physical precautionary measures we’re taking, we must not forget about our mental health. The reality is, that things are difficult for most of us right now.
When our every day routines are “massively disrupted” there’s a lot of uncertainty, loneliness, isolation, depression, anxiety and the increased risk of substance abuse.
While we never stopped working, being deemed essential, the physical distancing efforts and order to shelter in place, have made many of us miss the simple social interactions that were built into our lives. The things reportedly missed the most are as you’d expect – the simple things. Those that we likely took for granted at the time, yet now consider to be luxuries. They include sports, hugs, going out to eat, meeting for coffee or drinks, fitness classes or gym, simpler grocery shopping, and yes, even going to work.
While these might seem small in comparison to the magnitude of COVID cases and death rates, they aren’t insignificant. The removal of these mundane moments of our routine has incrementally affected our mental health and experts are predicting a significant downstream and longer-term health effects of the virus, concerning our overall mental well-being.
For those who transitioned to working remotely, while it may have initially sounded inviting, the reality for many of us is longer days with more work, without the usual social interactions. It turns out, we actually enjoyed the in-person meetings, being able to drop by a co-worker’s desk to chat, and having lunch with other people. But for the most part, those privileges have been removed. And we are suffering, some of us more than others, particularly with the sense of loneliness, simply described as a subjective experience of not having enough social connections.
That’s why the WHO encouraged us to refer to one of our preventative measures as physical distancing – not social distancing. We need the social connections to thrive.
Loneliness and isolation aren’t unique to COVID-19. These have been a growing health problem, well before the spread of this virus. In some cases, it’s even been considered an epidemic – The UK appointed a minister of loneliness in 2018, because they noted the physical impact it had on ones’ health – the equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day.
Social connections create positive impacts on our mental and physical health – increased sense of purpose and meaning, increased levels of happiness, reduced blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones.
Research and science continue to support many of the feelings we’re experiencing over the past few months. A study from a medical journal “The Lancet” found that the psychological impact of quarantine can be great, resulting in a range of mental health concerns from anxiety and anger to sleep disturbances. The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre shared that “prolonged quarantine or social isolation (without compensatory methods in place) will exacerbate anxiety, depression and a sense of helplessness.”
It’s simple. We are hard wired for connection and usually have built in ways during our day to connect – but with the restrictions in place – we’ve had to create them ourselves.
A silver lining I like to highlight is that we’ve learned that we need each other more than ever under lockdown. To get back what we had taken away from us however, we need to be intentional about it. Whether it be phone calls, FaceTime, Zoom calls, sending an emalil, we have to schedule them in – between and around our meetings, and make sure it’s in our calendars. You might also want to think beyond immediate family and friends. Consider people who have been supportive to you in the past – and use this as a time to reconnect. My university roommate for example, reached out to me a few weeks ago after being out of touch for about ten years. I was delighted to hear from her. And if you’re not a fan of face to face and feel conscious – turn off the video.
Also remember the low tech, like the phone, and even mailing a letter. Canada Post is still active. And a handwritten letter or card seems to be a long-lost art.
Try Zoom –originally created for business purposes, which has now become a central meeting place for people looking to socialize, with hosting of dinner parties, playdates, game night, trivia, book clubs etc.
The options are there. They are almost endless. Pick one. I promise you won’t regret it.
Here are some additional tips from Health Sciences sources to help counterbalance the stress that COVID-19 has had on our mental health.
- Create a routine — Get dressed, shower and plan your day – it will allow you to establish a sense of normalcy and productivity.
- Break up your day — Don’t spend your day in one room. Break up the monotony and change your environment with different activities.
- Take care of your body — Eat well, sleep and get any form of exercise (not just physical – but mental too – try meditation)
- Help others — If you’re able to practice physical distancing and able to, try to help someone in need and offer your support.
- Stay connected — Don’t be an island. Stay in contact with others with the abundance of tools that are out there – both high tech and low tech. Screens aren’t only for meetings.
- Media Diet — Don’t let the news be all consuming – get the information you need to know, from reliable sources and try not to watch it before you hit the pillow.
- Fight boredom —Try a new hobby, read a new book, watch a new show, learn a new skill. Anything you’ve been procrastinating about or set aside because you didn’t have the time – try to find the time now. Whatever it takes to stay mentally active.
- Avoid burnout — When working from home is truly feels as though we are more accessible than ever before and available 24/7. Like life in a small town, everyone knows where everyone is. There also seems to be no clear beginning and ending to our days, so try to set strict limits to your work to avoid becoming overwhelmed – and make time to unwind.
- Focus on the positives — There are still many around you. You just need to look harder for them some days.
- Take one day at a time — Don’t “catastrophize” or think too far ahead. Remember that everything passes. Even COVID-19
- And finally – please remember to let someone know if you are struggling.