Mental health during the COVID-19 crisis

Mental health during the COVID-19 crisis

What a year 2020 has been so far. No one could have predicted, we’d all now be living in a holding pattern of life as we know it. Yet here we are, making the best of this new world we find ourselves in. For some, the novelty of virtual team meetings and waving to neighbours from afar might be wearing off, and the reality of being stuck at home for the long-term settling in. While we navigate this new way of living and working differently, it’s important we prioritise and care for our mental health.

We checked in with UniSuper’s Senior Legal Counsel, Craig Delphine, who is also a qualified psychotherapist and mindfulness trainer, to ask for some tips on how to keep our mental health in check through the COVID-19 crisis.

We quite often hear the saying ‘Let go of what you can’t control’, and there are a lot of things we can’t control. Do you have any suggestions on positive things we could have some control of?

There do seem to be a lot of things we can’t control at the moment – although I’m actually of the view that there are very few things in life that, in reality, we have control over at the best of times. We certainly can’t control external events (Coronavirus!), and I’m not sure we even have much control over how we react to them. But, by reflecting on those reactions, we can help soothe those parts of us that are worried (what I can do is wash my hands; keep 1.5 metres away from others). And, when it’s all getting a bit much, if we have some experience with mindfulness, it can be a great relief just to bring awareness to our senses: the breath, our feet on the floor, the sun on our skin. Or just pick up your device and contact a good friend and talk to them about your feelings.  

The media is quite confronting, and the constant news feels quite hopeless. Any tips on how to safely stay up-to-date with what’s happening in the world, without causing major anxiety when the news is on?

It’s compelling to keep up-to-date but I think, for many people, especially in knowledge-based industries, knowing things, being the first to know, can be a way of avoiding emotions like anxiety. At the moment, all that information can actually cause more anxiety. It’s understandable that we’d be anxious – we’re worried about this virus and the impact it might have on us and our loved ones, physically and financially. But watching, reading or listening to more news isn’t going to help with this. By all means, keep up-to-date, but accessing the news once or twice a day should be enough for that. For Victorians, the DHHS website  presents the information we need to know in a very calm and straightforward manner. And, for everyone, Dr Norman Swan’s Coronacast podcast from the ABC  gives a sensible and reliable daily update.

What can we do to keep our mental wellbeing healthy during such a change in how we live and work?

The foundations of mental health are physical and are the same now as they were pre-COVID-19: get enough sleep; eat well; exercise regularly. It’s also vital to maintain social connections, which is fortunately more possible than ever today, even as we’re socially distancing. I think what brings a great deal of mental relief, ultimately, is to acknowledge our feelings. I’ve already mentioned anxiety, or fear. Other feelings we may be having but not acknowledging, could be anger or sadness. Anger, for instance, that some of our freedoms have been stripped from us; or sadness because we can no longer hug our friends, or we’re beginning to realise how much we miss the collegiality of our workplace that digital technology hasn’t been able to replace.

Presumably the impacts of COVID-19 will be felt for a long time after the lock down restrictions are eased and the world we once knew won’t be the same. How can we mentally prepare for facing a different world after this crisis is over?

I’m not sure this is something we can mentally prepare for. I think the idea of mental preparation for an unknowable future can sometimes be a way of skipping over the feelings we’re having right now, because they’re too painful or difficult to bear. Instead, I think the better approach is to develop a way to be with our current emotional state. This might be through yoga, mindfulness, going for a walk in the bush, or having a conversation with someone with whom we feel safe and connected. In this way, we can be prepared for the future, whatever it brings.

Any other tips you can offer to help look after our mental health during COVID-19?

Stay healthy, stay connected, remember to breathe. Talk openly about your concerns. It’s OK to be frightened. And seek the help of a mental health professional if you need more support.

Craig Delphine is part of UniSuper’s legal team. As well as being a lawyer, he’s also a qualified psychotherapist and mindfulness trainer who teaches self-awareness and has a Masters in Gestalt Therapy.