The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted our world and plunged us into a time of great uncertainty. In an opinion piece for Health24, Prof Ashraf Kagee from the Department of Psychology offers a few tips that can help us stay mentally healthy during the lockdown period.
- Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.
Looking after your mental health during the COVID-19 crisis
The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted our world and plunged us into a time of great uncertainty. Under these circumstances, it is quite common for people to be worried, distressed and anxious about what lies ahead. There is, however, no reason to regard anyone who feels afraid and anxious during these difficult times as being psychologically abnormal. We still have some time to go before the lockdown is over and almost everyone will be having some of these feelings at some point.
However, the constant stream of news reports about the COVID-19 pandemic can lead to a rise in levels of anxiety. If this is the case then one should limit the amount of time spent listening to or watching the news. It is, of course, necessary to get the facts – not rumours, misinformation and fake news – and we should seek information only from trusted sources. This will help us all take practical steps to make plans and protect our own mental health and that of our loved ones.
This is also a time to support others as helping other people in their time of need can benefit both the person receiving support and the helper. For example, checking by telephone on neighbours or people in your community who may need some assistance. Perhaps when leaving the house to buy supplies for yourself, it can be helpful to buy extra food for people who have no means, and whom government and NGOs might not be able to help during this difficult period.
For most people, living in lockdown for three weeks can be very stressful. It can be useful to structure the day with activities such as doing schoolwork and housework, working from home if your job allows, exercising, having some quiet time, watching TV and reading, spending some time with others and also spending some time alone. For many people, prayer or meditation can be quite helpful.
Social engagement is of course very important. Human beings are by nature social beings, and staying in touch with friends and family by phone or texting is necessary to maintain a sense of community and togetherness in this time of crisis.
Probably people who already have a mental health condition such as major depression or generalised anxiety may have exacerbated symptoms and therefore staying in touch with a mental health professional will be quite important. Many psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors will in all likelihood be available to their patients by phone or skype which can be quite important in helping people feel supported during this difficult time. Resources such as Lifeline can be helpful for others who are not in the care of a mental health professional. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (www.sadag.org) has some useful resources on its website, including information on apps that can help people reduce stress and anxiety and feel some relief from psychological distress. Also, positive social and family support during this time can help people feel less alone and vulnerable.
We live in an era of technology and so many people find it convenient to use texting, WhatsApp, Skype, email, Instagram and Facebook to check up on each other and stay connected. For those who lack access to social media, to the internet and to data, staying in touch with neighbours at a safe distance, writing letters and keeping a journal can be helpful under these circumstances.
In as much as there is a danger of information overload, it is necessary to keep abreast of what is going on and to understand clearly what the minister of health and the president want us to know. We live in a society in which our political leaders have let us down countless times, leading many of us to regard them with scepticism. However, this is a time to listen to authority. We really do need to heed the message of the lockdown. It will save lives and help to ensure that our health care system can cope with the numbers of people who will require services.
It is also important to honour carers and healthcare workers who support people affected with COVID-19. These brave souls play an important role in saving lives. Also, as the number of people infected with COVID-19 starts to rise, we should avoid stigmatising and discriminating, but rather offer our support, compassion and kindness. We should not refer to people who are infected as “victims", “COVID-19 families" or “the diseased". They are “people who have COVID-19", “people who are being treated for COVID-19", or “people who are recovering from COVID-19".
At the moment it is hard to see what positive things can come out of this experience. It is by all accounts a stressful and difficult time for everyone. But perhaps it's also an opportunity for us to acknowledge our shared humanity, the fragility of the human condition, and the fact that we are all in this together, no matter how divided our society might be.
*Prof Ashraf Kagee is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University.