COVID-19 has posed a challenge to everyone, and those more physically vulnerable in our community clearly need our care and attention.
There are also people whose mental vulnerability deserves equal care.
Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and addictions are exacerbated by a pandemic crisis in multiple ways.
Collective family and community fears are (in themselves) contagious; and the constant bombardment of medical and financial bad news, can leave those with mental illnesses lost in a cascade of negative rumination and catastrophising.
The mentally ill and people with addictions commonly have compromised immune systems, and suffer stress or substance, tobacco and alcohol abuse related diseases – leaving them wide open to severe pneumonia with acute respiratory distress symptoms – and other complications from COVID-19.
Isolation, separation and loneliness – caused by working at home and social distancing – are perhaps the worst contributors to: low mood; agitation; irrational fears; moments of panic; self-disgust; resentment; anger; and even rage.
People whose ability to pause, use reason and find practical solutions can be severely compromised. They may find themselves bereft of the motivation, and ability to engage in even the simplest tasks of self-care.
Added to this, listlessness, boredom and frustration can lead to despair. Then self-harm and suicidal thoughts may arise, take hold, and even overwhelm them.
Those in recovery or active addiction may also turn to their compulsive and impulsive behaviours of choice, to sooth and find momentary respite from the moods and thoughts that have hijacked their mind. Triggers, urges and cravings may become relentless and unbearable.
The solution may begin with finding a way out of isolation.
Starting the journey out of this darkness can start with talking to people who can demonstrate unconditional positive regard, show kindness and compassion, and help reframe the situation. Such people can assist those suffering to put a name to and validate their emotions.
In short – therapy can help!
In times of COVID-19, working with a therapist via teleconsultation can be effective using ZOOM, Skype, WhatsApp video and FaceTime.
Although the calming and soothing sensation of the physical presence of a therapist is absent, for those in isolation – distraught with shame and despair – Internet enabled therapy can prove a lifeline.
Isolation can be further broken, using similar Internet methods, by attendance in recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous – all of whom now hold Zoom meetings in Singapore.
These Zoom opportunities in Singapore are supplemented by Zoom, Skype and telephone conference meetings in Hong Kong and Australia (in Singapore’s time zone) and in the U.K. and the US (during our mornings and evenings).
Having broken the isolation, the second step therapists can provide is guidance and motivation towards self-care. This would include tapering or abstinence from the addictive substances or behaviour. A well thought through relapse intervention and prevention plan, specifically tailored to a person’s triggers, will also assist.
Triggers may be particular places, situations, people, objects or moods.
The acronym “HALT” is often used by those in recovery; which stands for the triggers of being: Hungry; Angry; Lonely; or Tired.
When these triggers arise, people are encouraged to
HALT their behaviour;
breathe deeply, with long outward breaths;
think through consequences;
think about alternatives;
consult with others; and
use healthy tools to self-soothe.
Daily mindfulness, meditation, exercise, sleep hygiene, healthy eating and following a medication regime are important aspects of self-care – and for some suffering mental illness – these actions – and time – may be all they need to find their footing again.
Luckily, the Internet gives a vast array of possible self-care options, including things to distract us, soothe us and improve us.
Everything is available from: calming sounds and music; guided meditations; games; home exercise, yoga and tai chi; self-exploration and improvement videos; video chats with loved ones; to healthy food delivery options. They can all be had with a few keystrokes.
Today we live at a time when suffering from mental illness and addictions is commonplace. But we also live at a time when the solutions are literally at our fingertips – if we only reach out for them.
The coronavirus is known to be extremely contagious, with its ability to transmit from person to person through tiny respiratory droplets. At work, it is inevitable that we come into close contact with our co-workers, especially if we are working in tight, enclosed workspaces. This unfortunately increases the likelihood of infection for everyone. For the betterment of everyone’s health and safety, many firms have thus implemented a ‘work-from-home’ scheme in an effort to limit the COVID-19 spread through proper social distancing. In fact, the Singapore government has made it mandatory for employers to allow their staff to work from home as far as possible, or else they would risk bearing fines or stop-work orders. In fact, just recently, the Singapore government has made it mandatory for most workplaces to shut down, except for essential services and key economic sectors. This will help limit the physical interaction between people as much as possible.
With such measures implemented, we would have to start relying more on telecommunication methods. Working from home may hence mean that face-to-face social interactions are limited as we are no longer able to meet others physically. Communication between colleagues may also be delayed, since more time is required for information or messages to be sent across. Over time, this may cause us to feel increasingly frustrated and anxious, and unless we know the right methods of keeping ourselves mentally and emotionally healthy, this will be greatly detrimental to our wellbeing. And for this, we will need to identify potential sources of distress in order to counter them effectively.
Unwanted feelings of stress and loneliness can indeed be an issue of concern if an individual works alone at home – after all, humans are social animals. This is especially so if he/she is extroverted in nature, and is highly dependent on social interactions on a day-to-day basis. Coupled with the unprecedented demands of meeting deadlines, these individuals may feel a sense of detachment and isolation if they are unable to socialise with colleagues which they had already bonded closely with. Thankfully, with an increasing number of social platforms such as Zoom or Skype, employees can make the most of them and easily arrange video calls with their colleagues to catch up with one another over lunch. Make sure you reach out to others and seek support as well whenever you are feeling too overwhelmed.
On the other hand, some of you may face a whole new set of problems. Some individuals may have siblings or other family members working alongside them at home, and it may simply create an unfavourable working environment. Having your family members around you, be it young or old, could be distracting at times, and employees could be more easily affected by their moods or habits. The stress of having to manage those around you may kick in, thus heightening the level of anxiety and irritation. In order to tackle this, employees must make sure to set clear boundaries between themselves and their family members during working hours at home. This could mean allocating specific rooms for respective family members to work in, and ensuring that they stick to their allocated rooms. In addition, perhaps there could be an agreement made between members of the household, where no one is permitted to enter others’ rooms when the doors are kept closed. This would help to protect the working space of everyone at home, and to minimise any disruptions or distractions. With this, it would undoubtedly be easier to remain focused and productive. However, it is also necessary to designate enough space for yourself to work in. Cramming yourself into a tiny room and working in it for long hours can make you feel claustrophobic and restrained. This will certainly not be beneficial to your mental wellbeing.
Some may question: “I’ve ensured that my family members are aware of my work-from-home schedule. Why do they still keep barging in?” If you are one of these individuals, you may want to consider if you are creating a “work” atmosphere. Are you lying in bed with your laptop, with your PJs on? Or are you sitting upright at your desk, and dressed the part? If you find yourself doing the former, then perhaps it is sending a false signal to other household members that you are available, or that you are working “casually”. Establish a proper routine and follow through with it. Always ensure that you have the right working attitude whenever appropriate, and this will surely help your family members understand. Nonetheless, remember to set strict limits to your working hours as well. Working from home can, understandably, cause the boundaries between work and your personal life to be blurred. Learn to detach for the day once working hours are over to spend time with your family and loved ones.
We also cannot exclude the possibility of experiencing technical difficulties when communicating with our colleagues through online platforms – this creates a need for better understanding and exercising patience with one another. Expecting an instant reply from your co-workers may be more challenging, due to possible time lags from network servers or devices. Others may also be busy handling other tasks at hand, and settling down amidst the new work arrangements. One way to prevent yourself from getting distressed or anxious is to plan ahead. Try creating a plan of action by listing all the tasks you need to complete. Ensure that you have prioritised your tasks wisely, that deadlines are set clearly, and that you have sufficient time to complete them. Allow for buffer time if you are working on certain assignments with other colleagues, so that any delays will not cause you to overshoot your deadlines.
Last but not least, work aside, always remember to take movement breaks! Such breaks act as a form of self-care, allowing you to recuperate and to free yourself of your burdens momentarily. This may sound trivial, but taking a short walk at the neighbourhood park (alone, and keeping a safe distance from others) or doing some stretching exercises in your room will surely benefit your mental health in the long run. Doing so will also help you to return to work refocused and to regain productivity. Likewise, get plenty of sleep and don’t stay up too late! Ensure that you are well-rested and rejuvenated before your work day starts. In light of the current situation, we should still remain positive and not let our worries take over us. Let’s all do our part to support each other in this period!