How to manage the mental health strain of COVID-19

The COVID-19 Pandemic is testing us all. We are dealing with massive change to our jobs, our finances, our future and possibly our families, through death. The impact on our mental health is undeniable.

As a WINner, front-line journalist, coach or manager, how can you deal with the emotional challenges?

First, remember that your feelings are probably not uncommon. Second, remember you are resilient and adaptable. 

Aderyn Exley, a Johannesburg based psychologist, who works throughout Africa, says she is astounded by the resilience and grit she has witnessed every day since the Pandemic began. "I hear people's experiences from domestic violence to COVID illness, associated fear, retrenchment, pay cuts, job loss, grief, impossible home challenges, single parenting, traumatised children, aloneness, anxiety, depression, relationship complexity and in some cases death."

"In all of this, there is one golden thread. With time, courageous conversation, patience with oneself, you will find a way. Keep showing up, keep talking and keep looking for answers. Fiercely protect yourself from what is toxic for you. Believe and embrace what soothes you. Remember your grit. It is there. "

For many, that soothing comes from their beliefs, and or sisterhood.

WIN Coach, Botswana-based Boitshepo Balozwi noted that "uncertainty" and "lack of job security" had been troubling many WINners recently, and this released a lot of uncontrolled, almost disruptive negative energy.

"What transpired in the coaching sessions was the need to try – despite the obvious impact of Covid-19 – to focus on doing what is positive and possible, e.g.:

– seeking new duties in the workplace,

– identifying courses to study in future, 

– managing personal time,

– giving more structure to the home/work schedule, 

– gaining new skills online or 

– doing simple deeds like reading books, 

– starting a personal, creative project, 

– going back to activities or plans cancelled due to past work schedules, and 

– spending more time with family. 

"The overall message is there is a need to take control of the situation as much as is possible," said Balozwi.

Psychologist Warde Bou Daher from Lebanon says COVID-19 makes it harder for people who previously had anxiety issues. The impact of these anxiety issues might lead to a psychological disorder. It can also have impact on your physical health: difficulty breathing, insomnia, eating disorders, risk of heart diseases. Also, one of anxiety’s consequences in certain cases is suicide.

A few practical tips for self managing your self to prevent distress from psychologist Exley:

– Introduce routine into your day

– Practise mindfulness

– Exercise 

– Connect with others – on the phone, online if not in person.

If you do find yourself in trouble, psychologist Daher suggests:.

– Speak out. Talk about anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or abused.

– Try to be aware of the situations that you might find yourself in. Whenever you are in a situation of distress, there is no wrong in asking for help.

– Whenever you feel you've been through a trauma or anything uncomfortable, try to talk to a mental health expert. We sometimes underestimate our mental health, and we shouldn’t.

– Scream for help, seek support, do whatever you need to do to feel good in your own body. You shouldn’t prioritize your job over your health.

Thet negative energy and discomfort that coach Balowzi talks about can be a sign of grief. In this case, grieving for life as it used to be, and what has been lost, for now. 

David Kessler, a world-leading expert on grief, told Harvard Business Review that we are all feeling several different griefs. "We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn't feel that way, and we realise things will be different… things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we're grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.

"We're also feeling anticipatory grief….that feeling we get about what the future holds when we're uncertain. Usually it centres on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we'll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can't see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We're feeling that loss of safety. I don't think we've collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level."

For coaches and managers, Kessler's first step to help manage the discomfort and negative energy is helpful – understand and recognise the stages of grief. These do not happen in any particular order:

– There's denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won't affect us. 

– There's anger: You're making me stay home and taking away my activities. 

– There's bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right?

– There's sadness: I don't know when this will end. And finally,

– There's acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed."

"Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually," says Kessler.

He also advises:

1- Find balance in the things you are thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image. 

2- To calm yourself, you want to come into the present by focusing on five things around you. Breathe.

3- Let go of what you can’t control. 

4- Stock up on compassion

For frontline journalists, being immersed in negative news all the time, whether physically or online, brings its problems.  Psychologist Daher says while journalists live the same stress as other people, they might face more anxiety issues. “They have had to deal with the virus first-hand: when people were confined at home, journalists had to cover COVID-19 and were subject to more anxiety and concerns on their physical health and the health of their family members.”

Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and University of Toronto found 70% of reporters they studied, who were covering COVD-19, suffered some form of psychological distress. A quarter met the clinical diagnosis for Generalised Anxiety Disorder, with symptoms of worry, feeling on edge, insomnia, poor concentration and fatigue.

Psychologist Daher says people often assume that all individuals who suffered from trauma will suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is not correct. “Many people live through traumatic events and recover because of their resilience. Some people do not develop PTSD because of their strong support system of friends and family. In certain cases, there is a development of PTSD. This is common among journalists because journalists are subject to complex traumas, such as many traumas in a row, because of the nature of their work. PTSD has an impact on a person’s career because it incites flashbacks and fears.

Managers of frontline journalists need to watch out for changes in behaviour – withdrawal, depression, acting out, anger and being chaotic. 

"Encourage those frontline journalists and news managers to do positive things to create space for the hard stuff. They should find some time alone (even if that means putting headphones on to block others out), exercise, and to get some sunshine. Healthy eating is also critical. So too not drinking excessively.

Alex Logan, a health and safety professional at Key Objectives, in a WAN-IFRA Podcast on trauma, said it was normal for journalists to face psychological hazards." We're humans, we're not robots, so there will be psychological hazards. Her advice to leaders is to be prepared:

– Talk about the psychological risk openly

– Demonstrate that there will be no repercussions for someone that reports something, or raises an issue

– Ensure there is a peer support network – train key personal to fall into that role.

– Listen

A big challenge for both managers and journalists is to adjust expectations around productivity and performance. "Expecting the same output as before will create stress all round. Things have changed, recognise that and reassess what is possible," says Exley.

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