Do you feel that the lockdown has affected your mental health?
Are you anxious? Short tempered? Inexplicably sad? Demotivated? Exhausted? Lonely?
Are you overeating? Drinking more? Exercising less? Having difficulty sleeping?
Whilst everyone is aware of the need to protect physical health – wearing masks, sanitizing hands and maintaining social distance – the very real mental problems associated with self-isolation have largely been ignored. And yet they are just as dangerous, if not more so.
Barely two weeks into the lockdown, we heard the tragic news of an elderly woman who jumped to her death from a block of flats near the beachfront. Although details are sketchy, the woman apparently lived alone and possibly felt completely overwhelmed by the situation.
Another elder who lives alone felt that she had lost the ability to interact socially. When people phoned to check on her, she found it difficult to chat to them; she was ‘out of practice’ in terms of knowing how to behave around others – and she was worried that she might never regain the feeling of being at ease socially.
Digital tools may add to the problem
While tools like Zoom and FaceTime allow us to interact more fully with loved ones and business colleagues, they also add unexpected stress – especially business calls where we virtually allow the boss access into our private space at a time when we may not be feeling (or looking) our best.
Adding to the discomfort is the inhibiting sight of ourselves on the screen. It’s a completely alien experience – watching ourselves talking to others and noticing embarrassing mannerisms of which we were previously unaware, how haggard we look, or that our hair is in desperate need of a cut. Anxiety over our own appearance can make it difficult to concentrate on what others are saying, or even to enjoy conversations with our loved ones.
Additional toll on parents of young children
In China, these expected mental health effects are already being reported in the first research papers about the lockdown. In cases where parents were isolated with children, the mental health toll became even steeper. In one study, no less than 28% of parents warranted a diagnosis of “trauma-related mental health disorder”.
When you think that globally, millions of people are dealing with these intense stressors with very little support, the consequences could be huge and last much longer than the virus.
Prof Ed Bullmore, head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said that the pandemic is having a major social and psychological impact on the whole population, increasing unemployment, separating families and various other changes in the way we live. “We know these are generally major psychological risk factors for anxiety, depression and self-harm,” he said.
Among other priorities, it is important to explore ways people have found to cope with the pandemic, and urgently find ways to support mental wellbeing, particularly in vulnerable groups and healthcare workers.
Increase in depression in South Africa
Casey Chambers, operations director for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), says the organisation has seen an increase in the number of calls since the start of the lockdown.
“We are getting more calls from people who are feeling more anxious, more down, and saddened as they see the number of cases and deaths increasing every day,” she said.
Of particular concern are people who are doing lockdown by themselves and who do not have family or friends. Many elders fall into this category. There has also been an increase in calls from people who live in abusive households, who are worried about their safety.
Tips to safeguard mental health
Tafta works closely with SADAG to ensure that elders experiencing mental health pressures during lockdown get the help they need. If you feel that lockdown is affecting you negatively, here are some tips to reduce stress:
- Maintain a daily routine. Slumping on the couch all day in your pyjamas ultimately makes you feel more helpless and not in control;
- Get some sunshine – stand at the window if you live in a flat, or go out into the garden if you can;
- Try to eat as healthily as possible;
- Stick to a regular bedtime to ensure you get enough sleep;
- Restrict media and social media coverage to prevent it from becoming too overwhelming. Be particularly wary of false news which can send emotions see-sawing wildly between anger and relief, hope and despair;
- Acknowledge that anxiety at such a difficult time is completely normal. Recognise that we are all affected by it and it’s global. It’s important to normalize these feelings;
- Enjoy a good laugh at some of the jokes doing the rounds. Humor can be an effective mood enhancer when times are difficult, helping us manage emotional responses and diffusing the impact;
- Find things to keep you busy (whether it’s constructive or creative) to help lift your mood. Try to exercise even if space is limited;
- Especially if you live alone, make a conscious effort to reach out and connect with loved ones by phone, online or through social media. While online contact can’t replace the human touch, it is still a powerful way of remembering that you are not alone.
- Above all, you need to believe that you will get through this. Human beings are by nature resilient, with a strong survival instinct. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you feel overwhelmed.
The SADAG mental health helpline is also open 24/7 on 0800 456 789. Or you can WhatsApp 076 882 2775 between 9am – 5pm.