Dealing with mental health during COVID-19

September 16th, 2020

Picture source: Gallo Images/Getty

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) hosted a Mental Health and Wellness webinar on 27 August. The webinar comes after the organisation realised the impact COVID-19 has had on legal practitioners. Challenges, such as anxiety and stress have impacted legal practitioners on both a professional and personal level. NADEL invited Clinical Psychologist, Naledi Nobathembu Mqhayi, to speak to legal practitioners and provide ways in which legal practitioners can adapt to working under the ‘new normal’ during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms Mqhayi said many people are suffering and struggling due to the physical attack of COVID-19, adding that the World Health Organisation has pointed out that the virus is not only a physical virus, but it also affects the mental state of people, not just because of the way that they feel, but there is evidence that the virus also affects the brain.

Ms Mqhayi said when one is in a good mental state, one is able to cope with life in general, even though one might face challenges now and again, one can still overcome the challenges easily. She added that when it comes to wellness, one should look at the balance of different entities of a human being, which consist of various components, such as –

  • an emotional component;
  • a social component;
  • an occupational component;
  • a financial component;
  • an environmental component;
  • a physical component;
  • an intellectual component; and
  • a spiritual component.

Ms Mqhayi pointed out if all the above components are in a state of balance and one can manage to move around without having one component overpowering the other then one is said to be in a state of wellness.

Ms Mqhayi noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought havoc into the world, whether it is physically, mentally, financially, spiritually or in relation to family and friends, people are having psychological challenges that manifest symptoms of mental un-wellness. She pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has made, for example:

  • Life unpredictable, as one does not know what tomorrow will bring, making it hard to plan ahead.
  • The seriousness of the virus has become more complex. Ms Mqhayi said that when the COVID-19 pandemic started the known symptoms included fever, chest pains and sore throats, however, that has changed and the virus’ symptoms have increased to include diarrhoea and backaches. She pointed out that new evidence includes some people showing signs of mental illness, in terms of being forgetful, confused, losing sense of direction and other related symptoms that linger before a person is declared COVID-19 negative.
  • People are scared, worried and anxious. It has caused the loss of family members, good health and self-esteem.
  • Social distancing and quarantining have caused unemployment, loss of income and for some a state of loneliness.
  • The pandemic caused fear, anxiety and panic.

Ms Mqhayi said the world is facing change and people need to face that change and decide whether they are going to embrace it, or if they want to remain the same. She pointed out that the decision in that regard is important because change is inevitable. She added that most often one is faced with no other option but to change with the times, and those that remain the same in the time of change, experience adverse consequences, and these consequences might result in one not being able to cope with the situation at hand.

Ms Mqhayi said since the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced, various changes have happened, for example, employees are working from home, travelling less for work and are having to do things virtually. However, she said these changes come with challenges as some people have bigger families and smaller spaces and children do not understand why the parents must be on long virtual meetings while they are at home. She pointed out that for some it is difficult to get work done at home. But one should improvise and find ways to maintain a professional set up even when working from home.

Ms Mqhayi said the entire world was hit by the pandemic and the situations in some countries are tragic. She added that South Africa, is one of the countries that could be doing better, however, she pointed out that it does not mean that the impact has been insignificant. She said the loss of one person, is a huge loss for many people, whether it be a loss of safety or separation from loved ones. She pointed out that when dealing and adapting to change, one should ­–

  • predict change and think ahead;
  • adapt to the change as it is necessary;
  • keep developing, as it is a part of growth;
  • be innovative in the change, as there may be opportunities when things are done on virtual platforms.

Ms Mqhayi spoke about the anxiety that people are experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that for some people it can be difficult to cope in a changing environment. She pointed out that when that happens it is important for one to remember that one can have control over some things but not over others. She added that people should be aware of what they can and cannot do. Ms Mqhayi said for one to sit and dwell on things they cannot change will only result in them experiencing more stress and anxiety, which can cause other mental illnesses, hence people should focus on what they can change.

Ms Mqhayi added that people should avoid stress and anxiety by all means, even though the environment and everything that is happening can cause anxiety, because they cause fear. She pointed out that one must acknowledge and know the symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is a heightened state of worry and when one worries excessively one can get to a point where one cannot function. The symptoms for anxiety include –

  • excessive worry, which is paralysing and can create irritability in terms of moods;
  • edginess and many are easily angered;
  • being unable to be tolerant of small things;
  • sleep disturbances, or a sense of restlessness;
  • poor concentration;
  • sore muscles from tension; and
  • a general state of fatigue.

Ms Mqhayi said that one should remember that anxiety is a mental state, it alters moods and cognitive functioning and the best way to deal with it is to –

  • calm down, because when anxiety happens one is in a state of edginess, panic or fear. To calm down and think helps one to start processing fears, and gain a better understanding of why one feels the way one feels;
  • use self-care strategies by putting oneself first, for example, by exercising and eating healthy;
  • go on a ‘news diet’, by not indulging in negative news on TV or social media, and take time off to restore ones mental wellness and positive mind set;
  • vent and let ones feelings out, reflect by looking in the mirror and say what one is thinking or going through;
  • limit interaction with negative people;
  • create a new routine and stick to it as a routine creates structure in one’s life; and
  • use isolation to reflect on oneself and be innovative.

Ms Mqhayi said it is very important people acknowledge that because of COVID-19 the world is in a state of loss. Once people acknowledge that emotion, they will take power in the situation and have control. She pointed out that in psychology there are internal lockers of control, which is when one admits that one is responsible for the way things are going and external lockers of control, which means one cannot control certain things around them and the environment around them influences how things are happening. And so, it is important to have balance on those two, as one cannot take full responsibility for everything that goes wrong and they cannot blame the situation for everything that goes wrong.

Ms Mqhayi added that it is important when dealing with loss that people:

  • Allow grief to set in, as it is normal for any human being to go through a grieving process when they have experienced loss, whether the loss is a person, a job or clients. Whatever loss one is going through they have to let grief set in. However, she said that grief needs to be monitored and complete, one gets to deal with other mental problems such as anxiety.
  • Be compassionate to oneself and other people, especially at the time of need and loss.
  • Live in the presence during loss as it is also important, she added that people should not worry about what is going to happen tomorrow, as they will have time to worry about other hurdles another time.
  • Notice positive moments and blow up ones positive moments. If one is able to achieve something in a day, it must be celebrated.
  • Find meaning to life as it is very important in a state of loss. Deep grief, however, is where life becomes meaningless and senseless.
  • Identify what you can control, as not everything is within your control.

Ms Mqhayi also spoke about financial loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said the pandemic is likely to impact household finances for years to come. She added that for people not to have their finances in order or not to have the income they once did, life can feel out of control, because there is no money to do the things that people were used to doing. She pointed out that because of desperation some people rushed for temporary relief, some cashed in their investments or made loans because they want an easy way of relieving the stress that they are going through.

Ms Mqhayi said that some people’s self-esteem plummets when there is no money, as their value of worth is embedded in who they are, what they have or what they do, and their self-regard goes with the money or title they have. If that is taken away from them, then they go into a state of depression and their energy levels decrease, to a point that they are in a state where they want to commit suicide because they want to run away from shame. Ms Mqhayi pointed out that people do not have to go through that alone. She said they must seek ways of relating to people, and talk about their situation, talk about financial distress, adjust their lifestyle and manage their expenditure and plan on how they are going to manage their finances and use resources efficiently to last longer.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.