By Sofia Serrano
The outbreak of the coronavirus has resulted in collective stress that has resulted in fear, anxiety and an overall state of psychological emergency. Mental health problems have arisen in the population according to studies at China’s Tsinghua University, the Spain’s University of the Basque Country and Italy’s University of Naples Federico II, all in countries that have been epicentres of the pandemic. The Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) recently surveyed 108 communication professionals to understand how COVID-19 had affected the mental wellbeing of Middle East PR professionals. It found that 45 per cent of respondents’ mental health issues had interfered with the completion of work-related tasks. The number of “very stressed” respondents had tripled since lockdown.
Mental health relates to our emotional, psychological and social well-being and how we think, feel and act. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, common indicators a person is suffering from mental health issues include sleeping or eating too little or too much, feeling numb, feeling hopeless, using substances (alcohol, cigarettes, drugs) more than usual, thinking of self-harm or harming others, and other detrimental behaviours.
Dr Ava Ghasemi-Holdich, a clinical psychologist at The MapleTree Center (a private practice of licensed clinical psychologists in Dubai), says struggles are dependent on the individual and their context (family history, culture, economic status, the company they work in, etc). A common scenario is that of parents with young children, who feel overwhelmed with the new structure and having to supervise online education while also working from home. People with their own businesses face additional pressures.
Another common scenario is that of those who have lost their jobs and need to uproot their families and return home or try to seek new work while hoping their savings will last long enough.
Then there is the case of those who work in another country from their families and have been apart for months, not knowing when they would be able to see each other again. Some of the most affected are people with older parents or loved ones with chronic health conditions. Those who took the most serious social distancing measures have often faced loneliness, isolation, and disconnection.
The repercussions of the pandemic include self-isolation, which has led to feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety according to Dr Diana Maatouk from the Hummingbird Clinic, a psychology and assessment practice in Dubai. Indeed, loneliness has become a growing concern as people have been forced to keep social distancing.
Even before the pandemic, loneliness – which is a subjective experience that includes feelings of sadness and a lack of motivation and meaning in life – was a growing public health concern. The impacts of loneliness on health can be similar to those of smoking or obesity, and increase the risk of depression and dementia. Usually, older adults are at higher risk loneliness, and with measures such as social distancing, the distress has grown.
A study published earlier this year by researchers at the University of California San Diego looked at coping mechanisms within a senior living community. Some elders used compassion, seeking companionship and looking for an environment that encouraged socialisation, acceptance of ageing, decisiveness, taking part in community activities and self-reflection on circumstances to cope with loneliness. Researchers suggest that it is possible to develop these qualities with counselling or coaching. While self-isolating, people can still use some of these techniques and connect via phone, email, social media or video calls, or even gather in small groups at a safe distance.
Maatouk gives an overview of the pandemic’s effect on mental health. When it started there was a first stage in which people were anxious about getting infected with the virus or about not being able to cope with being stuck at home. People managed to find mechanisms to adapt. The post-pandemic phase requires once more adjusting to the new boundaries at work, focusing more on self-care, keeping up social distancing, etc. For parents, the struggle continues when going back to the office while finding ways to take care of children without the support of nurseries.
One of Maatouk’s pieces of advice to keep negative emotions at bay is to stay informed from trustworthy sources, like the World Health Organization and local public health authorities, but within limits (30 minutes a day). Another recommendation is talking to others – or, if necessary, to a mental health professional – when overwhelmed with anxiety. The most important thing to remember is always to reach out to someone who can provide support.
According to Dr Chasity O’Connell, a psychotherapist at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics (a mental health clinic in Dubai), there are a diversity of experiences. For example, she says, “If you have been working remotely since March (it is now October), the life you are living has been semi-stable. Your mindset might be one of ‘Where do I go now? What is life going to look like for me?’ However, others who may have returned to work sooner or had a harder time with the transition could be eager for things to get back to normal, asking, ‘When will life go back to the way it was?’ Some people want to go back, and others have emerged from this experience deeply changed.”
Overall, there is a diversity of cases and it is too soon to identify a global trend of the effects of the pandemic on mental health at this stage. However, most studies and experts can see a tendency towards anxiety due to the uncertainty, as well as depression. The survey by MEPRA also confirmed that the three most common challenges among communications professionals are feelings of anxiety and panic (51 per cent), financial stress (42 per cent) and depression (28 per cent).
Matleena Vanhanen, a counselling psychologist at The MapleTree Center, reminds us that anxiety is a normal response in times of uncertainty. As time has passed, anxiety levels may have come down but it is now exhaustion that is hitting people because many have been stuck in uncomfortable circumstances for a long time. For the people who have been able to work from home, now is a time when adjustments have to be made once more as they go back to the workplace.
This can be great news for those exhausted parents who can finally have a space to concentrate on their workload. For those who were enjoying the flexibility of working from home, going back to an office may be less welcome. In either scenario, what Vanhanen recommends is to find a work-life balance and create healthy habits to avoid burnout.
The problem with anxiety, she says, comes when it stops you from doing normal activities or becomes detrimental to your well-being. In these cases, you need to find coping mechanisms to control it.
A technique, according to Vanhanen, that can be helpful is visualisation, which consists of imagining a place where you feel safety, comfort, and peace. Creating these moments of peace through the day can make a great difference. She also explains that anxiety often comes with depression. In these cases, it is of utmost importance to work hard on self-care. The practical side of self-care includes changing the sheets on your bed, cleaning your space, buying groceries and cooking a healthy meal, exercise, and so on. If your energy levels are down, then try the “10 good things 1 per cent more” technique, which consists of implementing a small improvement in a list of up to 10 good practices (if you can only think of one practice, she says, still go for it).
The experts agree on taking the recommended precautions and then setting personal boundaries. O’ Connell says: “I think one of the most helpful strategies is to remember what is within our control and what is not. We cannot control the behaviour of others, but we can wear a mask (one of the single best methods of reducing risk), wash our hands, avoid big groups in confined spaces, and be assertive about our social interactions.”
Ghasemi also reminds people predisposed to obsessive-compulsive disorder or phobias to speak to a psychologist to prevent unnecessary suffering. Also, Ghasemi highlights the importance of taking into consideration that each person and circumstance is unique. That is why sometimes individualised therapy can be of great help.
A recent study on coping with the harmful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health sampled a group of university students in China. It found a direct relationship between the COVID-19 death count and students’ reduced quality of sleep, a factor associated with negative emotions, stress and anxiety. One of the main findings of the study confirms previous studies suggesting that daily physical activity is a good treatment for poor mental health, as well as lowering the risk of psychiatric distress.
Recommended exercises included indoor routines such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and relaxation training. The study also suggested that the duration of exercise to minimise negative emotions was 108 min of light, 80 min of moderate, or 45 min of vigorous physical activity every day.
During COVID, Italy and China used a service of psychological first aid that involved clinical and social psychologists and psychiatrists available on internet platforms to provide psychological interventions. Similarly, the UAE has implemented a toll-free mental support line under The National Program for Happiness & Wellbeing. The line is available in English or Arabic by calling 800-4673 (800-HOPE) and also on WhatsApp (+971 800 4673). The working hours are from 8 am to 8 pm. For more details go to hope.hw.gov.ae
Similarly, there is a need to address mental health problems in the office and adapt programmes for the care of workers. The MEPRA survey, which polled PR and communications professionals, found that 48 per cent of organisations have a wellness programme. However, the survey acknowledges that “38 per cent of respondents don’t feel well supported with their health and wellbeing at work”. The survey also revealed that “44 per cent of respondents said their organisations never check-in their mental wellbeing”. As a result of the survey, MEPRA has since developed a workplace wellness programme. View more on the results and other resources at www.mepra.org/covid-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has had different outcomes. Some companies have found silver linings within the crisis. Amaeya Media founder and CEO Chirag Desai says some people in his company are happy about some of the changes. For instance, not having to commute saves time, and in turn, some processes have become faster. In terms of mental health, having strong internal communications has worked to keep up with everyone’s state of mind. Also, keeping the team on a schedule, working and being creative, as opposed to being stagnant, has allowed Amaeya’s team to share content with people and keep a high dose of creative energy that puts the team in a good mental space, says Desai. Still, he admits “really missing” the energy of face-to-face interactions.
Mental health remains of utmost importance in these times and should be addressed in the office as well, since it is the workforce that carries the organisations, so it is better to build each other up.