MENTAL HEALTH IN THE DAYS OF CORONAVIRUS

By Gillian Murphy, G11

At a time when fear of the physical threat that coronavirus presents is all-too overwhelming, the mental repercussions that are less-discussed are equally grim. For those with diagnosed mental health issues, stay-at-home orders and an unknown end to the pandemic can exacerbate pre-existing conditions, while those who previously felt mentally stable have seen this security disintegrating. It’s natural to feel stress or anxiety in a period of such uncertainty and change, but there has been a gross disregard for the severity of the mental health crisis that has accompanied coronavirus.

The mental stress of COVID-19 affects varied groups of people, and in many different ways. Increased reports of domestic abuse and poverty have revealed the distress and pain of many. Healthcare providers who are battling the disease on the front lines are facing trauma from the horrors they have witnessed; death, grief, an inability to help every patient. It’s an unending barrage that can be overwhelming to many in the medical field, an issue that gained some media attention when Dr. Lorna Breen, a prominent E.R. doctor treating virus patients, took her life after witnessing an onslaught of patients die before reaching the hospital. She had no history of mental illness, which highlights the fact that the mental health aftermath of coronavirus can affect anyone.

Children are suffering too, which is made worse by their lack of understanding of the pandemic. All of a sudden, young kids have gone from the extremely social setting of school to being isolated indoors, where many feel lonely and confused about what is happening in the world. Schoolwork itself has become a difficult task – parents in Italy and Spain reported 77% of their children had difficulty in concentrating. Not to mention the toll that becoming homeschoolers has had on parents – many have had to juggle full-time jobs at the same time as they try to teach restless kids. This has resulted in anxiety and strain for all involved, and the impacts are projected to last beyond the pandemic. Mental health issues have reached unexpected demographics; pig farmers, for example, who are being forced to euthanize their livestock due to the closure of meat-packing plants have also made pleas to the government for mental health help.

At the United Nations, the director of the World Health Organization’s mental health department presented the long-term effect of coronavirus on mental health, saying there will be a global increase in both the number of cases and the severity of mental illness, and emphasizing that governments should take serious action now. Unfortunately, the response on the part of governments has been sorely lacking. In the United States, Congress has been passing many emergency funding measures, but practically none of them are allotted for mental health. And in many other parts of the world, there are very few conversations about mental health to begin with.

“Mental health services are an essential part of all government responses to COVID-19. They must be expanded and fully funded. Policies must support and care for those affected by mental health conditions, and protect their human rights and dignity. Lockdowns and quarantines must not discriminate against those with poor mental health.”

A plea to leaders to take action by the Secretary General of the UN

For those concerned about their mental state, a New York Times opinion piece by a professor of medical clinical psychology at Columbia University (Andrew Solomon) pointed out an important distinction between a reasonable response and one driven by mental illness: the belief that things are not OK is reasonable; the belief that nothing will ever be OK again appears to indicate a clinical condition. Because indeed things are not OK, and the world may not return to normalcy for a while, but eventually there will be an end to the pandemic.

After researching the mental health effects of coronavirus on an international scale, I was curious how ISPP’s student population has felt during this isolated period. A poll was put on The Grapevine’s instagram account to get a sense of the current mental health state of our community, and nearly 50 students answered. Self-assessing their mental health on a scale of 1 to 7 (1 being poor and 7 being good), the average answer was a 5. This number is reassuringly not too low, which may be attributed to the fact that Cambodia remains unscathed from coronavirus thus far. But the community has still faced many changes in day-to-day life, and difficulties may be due to the fact that the majority of those polled are spending less time outdoors (77.3%) and roughly half feel that school has become more stressful (53.7%).

 As a student mentioned in the poll, one cause of stress is “acknowledging that I’ve become less productive.” And this lack of motivation is a common struggle for many. Scrolling through social media, one workout video after another flashes by. Art projects and home decorating tutorials seem to flaunt creativity and productivity, but in reality, it can be difficult to muster up the energy to accomplish any of these things. Instead, there is a sense of failure that we are not flourishing, as everyone else on social media seems to be. The fact of the matter is that it is valid to find doing any of these activities difficult. When one is worrying about a global pandemic, getting abs or learning how to play piano might not be a top priority. This daily debacle of feeling unmotivated that many are dealing with has a name: allostatic load. This is “the damage on our bodies when they’re repeatedly exposed to stress,” which would be fretting about the pandemic and the changes in our lives. Allostatic load causes us to feel exhausted even on days when the most we do is get out of bed, and though it feels frustrating, the reason for the fatigue is the extra work our brains are performing. Worrying about the pandemic uses up a lot of energy, and this happens when we read the news, make adjustments in our daily routine, think about our futures, experience loss, etc. And for now, there is not much we can do to deal with that, except accept it and realize that it is valid to be unproductive.

Whether you have a diagnosed mental health condition or are dealing with issues like anxiety and depression for the first time, it is essential to take steps to manage your mental health. The CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has published ways to cope with stress during coronavirus. Some suggestions include taking a break from the news, caring for your body/physical health, unwinding, and connecting with others. This can mean social media detoxes from time to time, delving into a good book, taking walks outside, exercising, eating well, and calling loved ones. We are all less alone in this than we think we are, and acknowledging that is an important step towards tackling the mental health struggles that accompany this pandemic.

Image courtesy of Harvard Business Review

To see more data from our polls, visit our Instagram page @thegrapevineispp!

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