After long days in the library, transcribing research interviews and coding, I recall the heartwarming feeling, when I was gifted a smile from a random stranger. The rest of the evening would be surprisingly pleasant and peaceful….A seldom solace. I could wrap myself in the warmth of that smile in order to sleep at night, without shedding a tear…. A few days and weeks into this “lock down” period, I’d look forward to my evening walks/jogs, as I might encounter a pleasant exchange, with more pedestrians on the streets than usual. Some would turn away from me more often than before, perhaps afraid of potential exposure, but sometimes I would get lucky… within a 6-feet distance, a sign of peace, of solidarity, that “we are all in this together.” However pathetic or cliché this may sound, it was gratifying, the magnetic energy of human contact in-person. But four weeks into lock down, the mask protocol seems to be slowly taking this away too, with the constant reminder that the worst is yet to come…if it hasn’t arrived already…
Having immersed in the “PhD-Quarantine Life” for a long time (at intervals), it may be a slightly smoother transition to “social distancing” and this “corona virus quarantine life.” But it isn’t easier.
As of today, Easter Sunday, we are deep in contagion with this corona virus global pandemic, and it just took a matter of weeks, which felt like years. We haven’t even reached the “peak” yet in most places, and contagion continues. For many, lives have been turned upside down, and for many others, it’s a complete slowdown. Either way, it remains extremely taxing, uncertain and scary. And if I read or hear the word “unprecedented” for the umpteenth time on the news, I might just go insane…
The pandemic has now taken over 100,000 lives across the globe (as of now), nearing two million cases. And we have surpassed 20,000 deaths here in the US, (the highest reported in the world), with over 560,000 cases, increasing rapidly. Corona has transformed “business as usual” at a grand scale, cutting across all boundaries of race, socioeconomic status, and geography. Over the last few weeks, we gradually heard/saw the names of public figures and celebrities we have loved, pop up in the news informing us of their diagnosis. We don’t know all the names of the other thousands of people that matter just as much… But we do know that many people have already lost friends and loved ones and haven’t been able to be with them on their death bed. And if this Pandemic hasn’t “hit us” locally, it will soon.
So it is difficult to think of a “bright side” to this historically catastrophic travesty. There is some guilt of even considering this… and an acknowledgement of privilege. Every day, we look at the numbers, we hear bad news. And if you have loved ones stuck in a developing country (one that is predicted to be badly hit by the Pandemic), citizens unable to return home to the United States (like I do), it’s a constant concern, just thinking about their safety non-stop, and generally for all our loved ones in lock down here and around the world. But the majority of the global population is NOT in lock down.
We are hence reminded on a daily basis the level of gratitude we should have during this trying time to even think beyond “the basic needs” that many others do not have, which in turn prevents them from the luxury of “locking down”.
I recognize this grand privilege and blessing to be able to sit here, think, and write about this.
But I would be remiss if I did not capture the impact on a particular issue that has re-emerged in the mainstream: Mental Health.
As noted in my last post, I am passionate about ending Stigmas. All Stigmas. They all need to go….
One of them, in the context of my blog, has been Mental Health Stigma.
There is a great urgency and pertinence of all relevant psychological care now, during, and after the pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 on our mental health and the future health of our younger generations is inevitable. And what we have noticed during this time, is a surge of anxiety. Surge of fear and uncertainty of how to move forward, what our future will look like, …how we can accomplish our personal, professional, short term, and long term goals.
I remain scared. I have been diagnosed with OCD and Anxiety for many years now, and already struggling with chronic depression before this Pandemic even started, far worse than I have ever had in my life. And I had a lot on my plate with trying to finish this doctorate… there was already so much uncertainty in my future, and lately all the hard work I put into my research on development policy and the specific contributions I planned to make methodologically, no longer seem to make sense, especially for the anticipated “post-coronapocalyptic” world. It’s crazy, in 2009, I graduated from my Masters in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which led to a huge economic recession in the United States. It was a rough time for the job market. Now, in 2020, potentially my final months of completing my PhD, I am possibly graduating this year and entering the job market during a global pandemic which may lead to the worst recession the US has experienced in decades.
The fear is real. As someone with OCD, every time I step out of my room and outside my apartment, it feels like a train or a bus is about to hit me. It never does, but it feels like it will… but this is the reality for some of us. It’s an incredibly exhausting feeling every single day….This ‘feeling’ was already pretty bad before the Pandemic made it more real. Now, the anxieties, intrusive thoughts, and compulsions have increased ten-fold. Nightmares about Covid-19 have emerged as well. The first week of “lock down” (which seems so long ago now) was horrifying. I was afraid to go to sleep and I lost even more sleep than usual. Rest and sleep was already bad, but it became worse. I didn’t know it could get worse. But I do know that the experience is far worse for those who have a more serious level of OCD than me. And I am grateful to have developed some coping mechanisms. Having my own mother recently tell me that my childhood habits of washing my hands and everything frequently, are now working for me at this time, was definitely something special.
But even with all of this grave and ongoing uncertainty, fear, and inconvenience, I acknowledge my privileged position to be able to reflect on the possible “bright sides” during and in the aftermath of this global Pandemic.
This gratitude is important. Certainly some positive things have emerged for those of us with this privilege:
- We reach out to loved ones more often, speaking to them on the phone…Think and pray for them more.
- We reconnect with people we haven’t spoken to in a long time. Arrange online meetings that wouldn’t have happened before.
- We have more time to invest in ourselves and take care of ourselves. As long as we come out of the immersion within our anxieties.
- We reconnect with humanity, remember our humanity, forgive ourselves and forgive others.
- We take time to help others, volunteer, donate funds as much as possible…
AND, alongside our quest to come out of this better and stronger, I absolutely believe we can create a positive impact in ending the Stigma on Mental Health.
This is a ‘bright side” that if truly taken advantage of as openly and honestly and sincerely as we can, could potentially make a huge mark for our Mental Health discourse and community at-large. We can and will do this with the mass collective recognition of mental impact on us during the time in quarantine.
We will feel an incredible sense of “collective grief” for our loss, the loss of humanity, and the grave uncertainty ahead… that will force us to make choices about certain issues. And with the emphasis on taking care of our health, our wellness, and being strong and healthy, so that others can take care of the sick and vulnerable, we recognize the need to come out of this with a responsibility to contribute something positive to the world.
Some of us have endured and continue to struggle with severe stigmas in our communities that prevent us from coming forward, reaching out, asking for help, and therefore never being able to get the help we need. I personally have been a product of that.
Although the conversations on mental health have become more mainstream, it remains vital to continue and to specifically, more blatantly spell out the stigma present in every layer of our society: in our families, communities, at employment opportunities, in our religious and cultural contexts, and beyond. In recent years, it helped me to learn that this is a prominent issue in the Pakistani/Pakistani American community, that I wasn’t an isolated case, even though it feels like we are alone in the struggle when we find ourselves prisoners within it.
And when we have switched to the virtual world completely during quarantine, the expression of our stress and anxiety online may be more prominent.
I have never held myself back from speaking up about my own struggles with mental health, sometimes knowing the consequences of such. But the fear, shame, and guilt of being an open book on mental health was always there, a consequence of the stigma. Since Facebook’s inception, I have used the forum as an outlet to express myself and be open, to help me cope with what I was dealing with. I have done this before I even knew what I was talking about, and what my mental health condition was, and before it became commonplace for people to talk about things openly, and I was often ridiculed and scrutinized for it. And for the past 5 years since I “came out” and revealed my chronic anxiety and depression on Facebook, I actively posted about the importance to ending mental health stigma, and it become one of the drivers of finally getting the courage to start my personal blog.
We should be able to talk about mental health, publicly and openly. And as more and more of us and the world come out with our stories on fear, anxiety, depression, uncertainty, during this Pandemic, the more we can develop the solidarity on the truth that has been previously so difficult to acknowledge:
Mental Health cuts across all boundaries: class, creed, religion, background, race, status, sexual orientation, political orientation, you name it.
And it connects us all….this solidarity behind the fear and the anxieties that come with it…
The Pandemic has reminded us that Mental Health and health in general is a unifying force, and as we come together and support each other, we must take advantage of this moment.
Simply talking about mental health reduces the stigma.
It is important for us to be able to talk about our experiences, not only during this Pandemic but just in general. Be open to hearing people share their stories, or express their pain and suffering, and be open to sharing it. There is this “Bystander effect” online, because when you see someone expressing something, you expect others to reach out and don’t do it yourself. The pandemic will encourage more people to reach out. The pandemic will make people more open with their vulnerabilities, and it will push more people to reach out to others via social networks or other means. I think it already has.
When and if we survive and overcome this pandemic, so many things in life will have changed for the worse, and for the better.
Let Ending Mental Health Stigma be one of the better things.
As some of our leaders proclaimed in the beginning of our lock down in the US: We are in a War. The current circumstances we are experiencing are equivalent to that of a War.
So we must act like Warriors. What has this meant in the context of this Pandemic?
We all have a role here to fight in this War. And we are unified in that role: To continue to take all precautions advised by the scientists and health professionals, to be extremely mindful, present, and aware, conscious of every action we take when we step out of our home or even our rooms. To take care of our health, mental and physical.
We have no idea how long this war will last. Our stamina is being tested.
But we need to sustain that “warrior mode” as we fight this as a collective.
We are social distancing, but our social capital couldn’t be more prominent than at this time.
I have gathered a few resources/links/articles to help with mental health and/or our awareness and understanding (Will update here as I encounter more):
- Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19, CDC guidelines
- Mental Health Coping Strategies, NAMI – National Alliance on Mental Illness
- Mental Health and Covid-19 – Information and Resources, Mental Health America
- How to Manage the Psychological Effects of Quarantine, Psychology Today
- How to Deal with Uncertainty, Psychology Today
- The hellish side of handwashing: how coronavirus is affecting people with OCD, David Adam
- That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief, Scott Berinato, Harvard Business Review
- Taking Care of Your Mental Health in the Face of Uncertainty, Dr. Doreen Marshall, AFSP Vice President of Programs
- Mental Health Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic, Active Minds
- Coronavirus outbreak raise threats to mental health, The Hill
- Coronavirus, anxiety, and the profound failure of rugged individualism, Roge Karma, Vox
- Dear Guy: “I’m incredibly anxious about Coronavirus. What can I do?”, Guy Winch
- Suicide Hotlines: http://www.suicide.org/suicide-hotlines.html
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- The Three Secrets of Resilient People: Lucy Hone: VIDEO
You may also review some of my resources in my personal mental health repository page here. Please feel free to share your resources in the comment section below and I can add them to my repository. You may note that I have not updated this page for a while, but there are some articles and resources I have compiled generally about mental health, and hope to add more when time permits.
Additionally, I know we are a few weeks into lock down now, but if you are looking for other hobbies and activities during quarantine, do consider painting. I have previously blogged about the power of healing, through painting, and have my own gallery I started a few years ago on a separate page here. I normally prefer landscapes and abstract landscapes, but let’s just say the pandemic inspired something else…. 🙂
The above shows my first corona virus painting based on some of the diverse images we have seen on media. It was an okay first attempt…
I gave a second try here (also shown in the feature photo)…
Painting was a childhood passion, but I started again about four years ago while immersed in my “PhD-Quarantine” to help with my anxiety and depression …I encourage picking up the paint brush if you haven’t already, as something to help heal this difficult time. This wasn’t my best work, but painting has been very cathartic for me.
Whatever ways we can cope with the crisis and the new life ahead of us.. whether it be painting or exercise, or even sharing our stories and experiences via social networks, it is a necessary effort. I sometimes tell myself during a specific trial or tribulation, that I need to survive it, so I am well enough to tell the story when it’s time, and in turn fight for others. We need to get through this so we can tell our stories of survival for future generations.
Mental Health Communities as a whole should seize this moment.
Stop the Stigma once and for all. Just finish it.
It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to be anxious. It’s okay to be sad. And it’s okay to express it openly. It is important that you do express it openly and not suffer alone and in silence. That was the case before the Pandemic too. We must remember there was immense “silent suffering” with mental health among millions of people, prior to the Pandemic as well. But now more than ever, with social distancing measures in place for an unknown time period, we must not allow each other to suffer in silence.
During and after this Pandemic, I hope we can speak about this actively and freely in every layer of our existence.
And as we collectively re-conceptualize and rebuild our society post-pandemic, creating a better world, let us make “The End to Mental Health Stigma,” part and parcel to that better world.
People from all walks of life are working together to get through this difficult time. The universality of our suffering and our pain could never be as prominent as it is now. Every day I look at the numbers of people we lost. But as of today, April 12th, over 30,000 have recovered in the US, and over 420,000 have recovered around the world. So perhaps I’ve been looking at the wrong numbers. We shall honor, cherish, and pray for the warriors that passed, and celebrate those who recovered.
And I’ve stated this before, but believe me from personal experience: never forget what a smile from a random stranger can do for our hearts, especially in tough times. It may save a life.
Take heart friends, we will overcome this.
And ensure that the lives we lost were not lost in vain.
Thinking of you, praying for you, and wishing for your safety and good mental health.
With warmth, peace, love, and blessings,
Thank you for reading, if you find this post resourceful, please feel free to follow or subscribe. At the moment I am writing once a month, but I hope to return to my original goal of writing a post once a week once I finish my dissertation. 🙂 Thank you again for your valuable time!