COVID-19 provides ‘openness’ to discuss mental health – expert

LOCAL mental health experts are reporting that COVID-19 and its implications have opened up a space to better discuss mental and emotional well-being with lessened judgement.

Associate clinical psychologist Kamala McWhinney told the Jamaica Observer that while there is still stigma surrounding mental health, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for people to freely discuss their psychological health, which may further reduce stigma around mental health over time.

“There is a sense that we are all being affected by this crisis and in some ways people feel less alone in sharing their responses. In some ways then, the pandemic has started to normalise the conversation about psycho-emotional responses to stress. We are by no means fully there, but to the extent that mental health professionals and our health authorities can keep the messaging and resources consistent, relatable and accessible, we may see reduced stigma over time,” McWhinney said.

While individuals have become more open, the associate psychologist said one of the most important things to examine right now is how individuals are dealing with losses and processing grief.

“There have been several ways in which persons are experiencing loss and the grief which often accompanies loss. These include loss of loved ones to death, loss of the typical grieving process due to altered burial rituals, loss of jobs or salary cuts, loss of the ability to celebrate socially important milestones such as graduations, weddings, etcetera. With loss comes some significant psycho-emotional changes such as sadness, social withdrawal, changes in sleep and appetite, apathy and others. In cases where there were pre-existing mental health conditions, the experience of loss can worsen those symptoms. Persons may show increased irritability and have difficulty making decisions,” McWhinney pointed out.

McWhinney added: “This ‘new normal’ creates uncomfortable changes but we can make the best of it. We can still remain connected though physically distant; it is not always the same but it can be very positive. Online memorial services can be helpful in that regards. I encourage persons to craft the normal that works for them. Have more than one service at different points in the grief journey if that is helpful. Speak with a counsellor if more support is needed.”

Conversely, there are individuals who lack the self efficacy needed to display resilience in the midst of COVID-19. For them, McWhinney’s words were, “you are not alone”.

“Being affected by the crisis is not a sign of weakness and doesn’t necessitate feelings of shame nor guilt. There are resources to help manage the impact of the pandemic and eventually we will come out of this period. When we have emotional difficulties, it is important to face them. That often allows us to deal with them better and sometimes more quickly.,” she said.

In addition, as it relates to coping with various degrees of losses, McWhinney encouraged individuals to give themselves permission to feel their feelings and offered five additional tips to manage during COVID-19.

“Exercise self-compassion. If you are not feeling quite like yourself, it is normal under these difficult circumstances. Do not beat yourself up. Two, focus on what you can control. Losing a job in a crisis is very difficult but you are not powerless. Three, make two plans for the future: one plan for the worst-case scenario and one for the best-case scenario. Can you ask your financial institutions for grace in managing your loans and liabilities? Can you ask for assistance from a trusted friend or relative until things are better? Four, stay flexible and agile. There are opportunities opening up within this new normal. Focus on how you can solve problems and spend time exploring possible entrepreneurial ventures. Five, you are not alone. Stay connected and consume positive information,” she said.

Further, McWhinney said there are free resources for mental health services being offered to Jamaicans, and encouraged individuals to utilise the services. She also urged Jamaicans to make use of self-help activities that can assist with coping.

“The Ministry of Health and Wellness has created a helpline and the Jamaica Psychological Society provided sessions for front line workers. There are things we can do on our own to help manage stress and its effects on our mood and our bodies. While coping tips cannot in all cases remove the specific stressors we experience, they can help us to stay balanced and allow us to better find solutions or get the strength to go through the challenging times.” she said.

“Exercise is one such thing. It is so simple that it is overlooked. It is a mood booster and has a powerful effect on the mind. During moments when we may be feeling anxious or panicked, deep breathing can help to calm us. Ideally, we should breathe in such a way that when we inhale our bellies expand. This is called diaphragmatic breathing and it produces a deep calm when done consistently. Another self-help tip is talking through your feelings with someone you trust. No man is an island and we all need support, especially when we give consistent support to others. It is also helpful to consume happy and positive content daily. To prevent overwhelm, it is important to take breaks from the news and social media updates. If there are pre-existing mental health conditions stay in touch with your health provider, especially if you are having a personal crisis. Some are offering virtual sessions,” McWhinney said.

With regards to finding hope in these times, McWhinney said gratitude breeds hope.

“In as much as there are many sad things happening, there is still much for which to give thanks. If we practise thinking on these things daily we can even see where we can be of help to others. This can be as small as sending text messages once a day to someone to encourage them, running an errand for someone who cannot, or sharing three grocery items with a family that needs it. These practices can keep us in a positive space of hope and wellness,” she said.

Professor Wendel Abel from The University of the West Indies also agreed that since the pandemic people have become more open about their mental health, and as mental health professionals the onus is to now work with people through their various responses to the uncertainty around COVID-19.

“We must be careful not to medicalise everything. If people express anxiety and fear, we have to normalise these responses as normal and natural response – it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with people. We have to help them to work through their response so that it doesn’t end up in long-term mental health problems,” Professor Abel said, adding that an online poll he conducted indicated that most individuals were coping.

Professor Abel also indicated that one major issue is uncertainty, as individuals are not clear on what the world is going to be like now that June 1 has passed, and that raises cause for concern.

“We don’t know how organisations are going to function, we don’t know what systems they are putting in place to deal with COVID-19, we don’t know how people’s roles are going to be redefined as people are going to be asked to work from home. That remains a major issue. Also, the economic uncertainty. The country is just coming out of a difficult economic problem and we see where it [COVID-19] has caused tremendous economic dislocation, especially in the travel industry, the tourism sector. Another cause for concern is the children and the impact of school closure – how they have to be dealing with exams and the uncertainty and the next academic year,” he said.

Moreover, Professor Abel said going forward individuals must be mindful that tough times do not last but tough people do.

“We are resilient. We have been through tough times before and we will get through this one. It is very important now for people to begin – as we pick up the pieces and move on to try to reopen the country – to look for opportunities. Every crisis presents enormous opportunities. Let us begin to look for the opportunities to carve a brighter future ahead,” Professor Abel said.

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