Mental Health Awareness during the COVID-19 lockdown

It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is having diverse and profound impacts on peoples’ lives around the world. Perhaps one of the most important impacts, although less often discussed, is the strain it is placing on mental health.

This week, May 18-24, is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. We therefore thought it would be fitting to dedicate a post to the mental health impacts of COVID-19. This year’s theme is ‘kindness’. Being kind to ourselves and kind to others. At the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine, we recently held our annual ‘Away Day’ (remotely) on April 24th, wherein mental health was one of our 3 key topics for group discussion, prompting further valuable meetings. We thought we’d share some of the challenges that were raised, as well as the tips and resources that were suggested during these brainstorming sessions – we’re in this together, after all!

What are the challenges of being in ‘lockdown’? 

The negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic can at times feel sad and overwhelming. Given the extent of the changes the world is undergoing and the uncertainty in how long these changes will last, it might even be that you’re experiencing feelings of shock. It’s important to recognize and accept that it’s normal to have moments and days where we feel less than OK. You, or friends/colleagues/family members may be managing multiple responsibilities such as work and childcare/home schooling, or caring for the elderly. You may be feeling isolated, lonely or disconnected, particularly if you are living alone. You may not be able to visit those you most care about, or have even lost loved ones. You may simply miss social gatherings or traveling to other places. Many of us are struggling to maintain a good work-life balance, and to overcome feelings of reduced productivity and/or motivation. One of the major themes that emerged from our group discussions was a feeling of guilt. For those with caring responsibilities, this might be related to feelings of not accomplishing much work and/or not spending enough time with the family. For those who have been put on furlough, you might be missing a sense of purpose related to your job. For those without caring responsibilities and who continue to work from home, it might be a sense of guilt associated with not accomplishing much, despite not having such constraints. Whatever your circumstances, it’s almost certain that you’re trying to find ways to cope with this new reality and the challenges it presents.

What can we do to improve our own mental health, and that of others?

This is where the theme of kindness comes in. Be kind to yourself. Accept that the goal post has changed, and that you might need to adjust your expectations. Try not to compare yourself to others – everyone is in a very unique situation. You will be less productive, but that shouldn’t be cause for alarm. We should be allowing ourselves to de-prioritize some of our work commitments, and to focus on taking care of our own health and well-being. You’re not being judged! Remember that the biggest task-driver (and source of guilt) is almost inevitably ourselves. While many of us in academia identify a lot of our self-worth with our productivity, now is especially not the time for that. Remember, you’re not just working from home: you’re stuck at home during a global pandemic! So try to be easy on yourself, and don’t set unrealistic targets – whatever you’re able to manage right now is perfectly OK. Celebrate whatever you do manage to accomplish!

Taking care of ourselves, and making sure that we emerge from this pandemic in good physical and mental health, is one of the best things we can do not only for ourselves, but also for those around us, who we will be better able to help support. Try to be aware of the sources of your stress: make changes to improve the things you can, and do your best to accept those you can’t. Focus on the things that make you feel good that you’re currently able to do, and take the time to do them! 

Be kind to others. It’s impossible to know what challenges other people are currently dealing with. Try to remind yourself regularly that we’re all in very different situations at the moment, although each likely trying to overcome our own set of challenges. While these are truths at any time, they are especially relevant now. Reach out to others! There’s a whole field of science around the benefits of kindness on our well-being.

What strategies have Institute members taken to maintain their own mental health?

  • It may be relevant to consider going on furlough if you have lots of additional responsibilities. Talk to your line manager about this option.
  • Keep a routine, possibly planning our free time to reduce anxiety
  • Ask for help when you need it
  • Volunteer locally
  • Schedule in rest time – and observe it!
  • Keep a journal / summary of the day; this might include reflections of gratitude for the things that are going well
  • Take the time to cook and eat well
  • Stay in touch with friends and family
  • Get regular exercise, particularly outdoors
  • Yoga, meditation and/or mindfulness practice
  • Develop a new hobby, or rekindle an old one, be it cooking, baking, embroidery, a musical instrument, etc.
  • Get into a good sleep routine. Websites such as Sleepio can help with this.
  • Try to have a separate room or area for working to create a physical separation
  • Think about the positive impacts of the current situation:
    • greenhouse gas emissions have dropped (if temporarily)
    • We have developed new ways of working remotely that we can learn from and apply even after the lockdown has lifted

Online Resources:

Some general tips for working from home provided by happiful and by BBC News.

Some tips from the Mental Health Foundation about looking after our mental health during the COVID pandemic, be it working from home, parenting during the outbreak, or living in isolation.  

The University of Glasgow has provided various tips and resources for health and well-being. It has also published an employee guide to managing stress.

PAM Assist is an external and independent counselling service offered to all University of Glasgow staff. It’s free and confidential.

University of Glasgow professor of psychiatry and clinical psychiatrist, Daniel Smith, shares a quick video with valuable take-home messages.

The Happiness Lab podcast has several episodes that suggest concrete actions for staying positive through the crisis.

Headspace is a web platform providing a variety of tools to improve sleep and healthy living, including guides for meditation and mindfulness practices.

Big White Wall is an online mental health support community that provides anonymous, 24 hour support and resources. A similar phone or email service is provided by The Samaritans. Breathing space is another free call service for those in Scotland.

Lifelink is a Scottish charity that provides online resources for the well-being of adults, young people and businesses, including counselling.

Innerspace provides many resources and courses relating to mindfulness, including live meditations, and the Calm website provides free stress-reduction resources.

Book Club:

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle

The Compassionate Mind, by Paul Gilbert

Mindfulness. A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Danny Penman, J. Mark G. Williams, and Mark Williams

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, by Haemin Sunim

The Upward Spiral, by Alex Korb

Original artwork by PhD candidate Chiara Crestani, 2020.

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