Each one of us must play our part

  • Focus
  • Sunday, 29 Mar 2020

FROM funny memes and jokes to cute cat videos – many are sharing these in a bid to lighten moods during this difficult time. Which is a good thing because people need something other than the worrying Covid-19 news streaming constantly while we are under the Movement Control Order (MCO).

The fact is, the MCO period will likely have a psychological impact on our population, especially since it has been extended to April 14. But although it does severely tamper with the normal routines people are used to, the MCO is needed and there is no other viable option.

The MCO can lead to significant stress caused by fear and anxiety about not only the disease itself but also the economic implications of this pandemic. In addition, people with pre-existing mental health conditions are also likely to decompensate due to this additional stress and fear.

In the current situation, people are hit by the reality that they are not in control of their lives.

For one, not everyone’s occupation can be adapted to working from home. These people will bear the real brunt of economic consequences of the MCO. This may result in depressive symptoms characterised by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

Human beings are also not meant to be isolated. Not being able to perform the congregational prayer or even to hug a family member are indications of drastic behavioural changes that can cause painful adjustments to religious and cultural norms.

A popular politician lamented that due to social distancing he has not been able kiss his mother’s hands when leaving the house to perform his ministerial duties. A seemingly minor adjustment like this that challenges our sense of family and community can have a significant impact on our mental health well-being.

People might see changes in sleep patterns and eating habits and experience worsening physical health problems. Some might try to cope with stress by smoking more or consuming alcohol. Sadness, confusion, fear and irritability may envelop our lives during this period of MCO.

Different people adapt differently. Such anxiety and depressive symptoms are likely to surface more prominently in extroverted personalities. These are people who are always on the go and are inclined to be more sociable. Introverts, on the other hand, might be able to adapt better to isolation.

People often forget about the mental well-being of health care workers and frontliners. Besides work stress resulting from burnout as well as the danger of being infected, they may also face avoidance by their family due to stigma and fear. It would not be surprising to find that some of our health workers and frontliners display features of post traumatic stress disorders even after this pandemic subsides.

Being confined the whole day in our homes is not only about ourselves – equally significant is how living in such proximity with family members affects our interpersonal relationships. It may result in annoyance and arguments. Those in large houses may not be suffer as much as those living in cramped spaces.

In fact, statistics from China – although unverified – suggest that divorce rates have gone up significantly in the background of isolation.

Tolerance can be tested however much you may love your spouse and family. It might appear strange that suddenly it becomes difficult to adjust to even the closest of family members.

How do we then adjust as best as we can to the MCO period and perhaps even find some hidden saving grace in the situation?

Reach out

Isolation does not mean not being connected to others. We have the technology to even have a cup of coffee with friend through video calls. Think of the hundreds of friends you have on Facebook who you never had the opportunity to even say hello to since you added them as a friend. This is the time to reach out to them and show that you care. Connecting with friends and colleagues can give some normalcy to life.

Maximise the use of digital connectivity but be cautious of misusing it. During this time of fear and irritability people tend to displace their anger towards others or encourage others to distrust the establishment. Some become overnight experts on Covid-19 mitigating strategies and even endorse herbal remedies touted to destroy the virus.

Rumour-mongering, racial profiling and soothsaying can all be done in a moment of anger and fear. Think twice before you tap the forward button on your phone.

Seek information and updates only from reliable sources and official platforms. There needs to be an implicit trust in the system and a realisation that the MCO is for the greater good of all.

On the other hand, the authorities must relay information in a respectful manner rather than using fear as a method of containment as fear tactics cause more anxiety leading to panic behaviour. The Health Ministry has so far done a remarkable job in highlighting the significant number of recoveries while being transparent about the number of deaths. Such an approach gives hope to people in this time of uncertainty.

Integration of mental health messages into public health guidelines is paramount, targeting specific groups like the elderly, care givers, persons in medical isolation. Self-care and support for health staff cannot be further underscored. They need to remain connected to friends and colleagues. Often, health workers and frontliners try to cope by using sleep medication, tobacco or alcohol. They need to be enlightened about positive coping strategies.

Volunteering to reach out to the elderly to validate their accessibility to routine health check ups and ensuring adequate stock of medication can help them feel cared for. Things that we take for granted like calling for a taxi in an emergency or ordering home delivery of provisions and food may be a challenge for the elderly, even those in urban areas.

Try to create a schedule of activities for the family mimicking normalcy as much as possible.

Even in a small abode, some physical exercise and workout is possible. Exercise releases endorphins in the body which helps boost one’s mood thereby helping to reduce irritability.

Use the time together to make plans for the future once this pandemic subsides. This gives hope, especially to children, that the future may not be bleak after all.

Children model what they see in adults, so be careful how you deal with your spouse in the presence of your children. Encourage them to take ownership of their lives during this crisis by delegating manageable responsibilities to them.

For those working from home, children can be a distraction. You need to be on the same page with your spouse when dealing with children seeking attention during the “work hours” at home.

We must be mindful of our own selfishness. For example, monopolising the television or sitting in the most comfortable spot on the sofa the whole day can upset family members. What is ordinarily a non -issue can become a flashpoint in a home environment full of fear, anxiety and uncertainty.

Finally, we need to convince ourselves that by complying with the MCO we are doing our part in the prevention of the disease. This is an unusual situation that requires extraordinary efforts. Each one of us must play our part.

Prof Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj is president of the Malaysian Mental Health Association and a consultant psychiatrist. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect those of Sunday Star.

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