The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns put in place to curb it have changed the very landscape of mental health globally. In addition to the immediate grief of losing loved ones to the disease, mental health issues have stemmed from the myriad ways in which our everyday lifestyles have transformed. This means that phenomena specific to the pandemic era have been reported, in addition to other previously recognised concerns that may have been related to staying in for long periods of time, or dealing with stressful circumstances.
Here's a look at the mental health issues people are experiencing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic:
For anyone working from home, using Zoom or similar applications to attend meetings or interact with colleagues has become an inevitable part of life. A work schedule inundated with video calls can cause its own kind of burnout. Researchers at Stanford identified four reasons for this particular type of fatigue: excessive eye contact at a close proximity, which our eyes and brains interpret as an intense situation; seeing oneself on video for long periods, which one would not normally do during pre-pandemic times; the inability to move around during a meeting; a higher cognitive load since non-verbal cues are tougher to read virtually.
The solutions they have outlined are simple and easy to implement: reducing the size of the Zoom window, using the 'hide self view' button when video presence isn't needed, placing the video camera/device further away from oneself, giving oneself audio-only breaks and putting the video mode off.
Described as a 'blah' feeling, languishing is marked by a lack of focus or drive to do anything. It is distinct from burnout and depression; individuals have reported aimlessness and joylessness. Organisational psychologist Adam Grant's essay about the subject in The New York Times describes it as the neglected middle child of mental health. While flourishing is the peak of well-being, depression is its polar opposite, and languishing sits somewhere in between these two states. The term was reportedly coined by sociologist Corey Keyes.
Grant says it is the consequence of the prolonged nature of the pandemic. The initial fear of the virus and the need to follow certain patterns to maintain safety marked the early period of the pandemic " the author terms this anguish. A year on, with no seeming end to the pandemic in sight, anguish has been replaced by languishing. The danger of languishing is that one doesn't actively recognise the dulling of their focus, or want to act upon this dulling, creating an attitude of indifference about one's general sense of indifference.
The antidote to languishing is reportedly maintaining a flow and immersed interest in one's tasks, in an attempt to beat indifference. Grant suggests that individuals should give themselves uninterrupted time to finish tasks, and focus on small goals to this end.
Grief has assumed a sort of omnipresence in our lives, but this feeling isn't just a consequence of losing a loved one or reading the statistics of deaths that have taken place due to the coronavirus. An interview with David Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving with Elisabeth KÃ¼bler-Ross, revealed that individuals are feeling many different kinds of grief at the same time.
As a society, we are also experiencing this state collectively, and about many different aspects, such as financial losses, extreme changes, etc. One of the foremost experts on the subject, Kessler told Harvard Business Review that one of the main kinds of grief people felt was anticipatory, which stemmed from the feeling of an uncertain future. This cuts into the feeling of safety and security that marks 'normal' times.
Kessler is of the opinion that accepting and understanding grief is where the power of processing it lies. He also suggested trying to achieve a balance in thoughts " acknowledging that not all of our loved ones have left us, and reminding oneself that the pandemic, however long drawn, is still temporary. Another key step is identifying and naming what you're feeling (and this may be useful for the other mental health issues that are a result of the pandemic, too). "There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what's inside of us," he said.
An issue frequently reported by people in healthcare and counselors and psychologists, compassion fatigue is exhaustion from caring " a cost of being compassionate. Individuals who suffer from this have expressed feeling a sense of hopelessness after reading the news and keeping abreast about causes one cares about, especially headlines that evoke a sense of defeat. It causes burnout and secondary traumatic stress. It leads to a lack of appetite, an inability to sleep and go about one's everyday tasks. It can also make one more susceptible to other mental health issues.
The scale of the pandemic, the news about strife, protests and rights violations, and uncertainty about the future caused many to experience compassion fatigue. To combat this issue, experts recommend monitoring the amount of information one consumes, drawing clear boundaries about what you can and cannot do, and institutional training on resilience building for those who are high-risk individuals.
Relatedly, experts have spoken about the dangers of '>doomscrolling' " "the compulsive need to try and get answers when we're afraid," as one BBC report puts it. It involves endlessly scrolling on social media and through news, especially bad news. The pandemic has caused people to doomscroll because of an excess amount of time on their hands, as well as a need to constantly keep consuming news about COVID-19. Users have also reported 'pleasure' associated with this act, of having read something dreadful while within the comfort of their secure homes. Some also doomscroll in the hope of finding a spot of good news.
Experts suggest keeping track of the amount of time spent on social media and while trawling through the news, putting reminders to put one's phone off, and pledging to put away one's phone for certain periods of time.
Revenge bedtime procrastination
Many people have reported not wanting to go to bed after a long, tiring day at work, instead wanting to be on their phones, scrolling through social media or Wikipedia articles, or doing equally mundane things. Reportedly a term coined in China, revenge bedtime procrastination is eating into people's sleep as they try to reclaim free time from their days by staying up for longer. It is an almost vengeful attempt to get me-time, reports The Washington Post. In several cases, this has coincided with people willingly giving up free time in the day to do work, as opposed to taking time off.
The Washington Post suggests carving out time for oneself and making the most of it, as well as pruning one's schedule as ways to counter this type of procrastination. The BBC reports that bringing an end to this tendency to cut down on sleep will require institutional changes, wherein employees speak to their bosses about a routine that works for them. A labour sociologist quoted in this report says that by encouraging employees to sleep longer, employers will actually ensure higher productivity levels.
Pandemic burn out
Individuals " especially millennials " have reported feeling burnt out even before the pandemic brought the world to a halt, and our offices into our homes. In her iconic BuzzFeed essay, Anne Helen Petersen wrote about "errand paralysis", the tendency to put aside and delay undertaking simple but essential tasks, resulting in a hauntingly long to-do list, and shame about not ticking things off it. The pandemic has exacerbated burn out and the phenomena that result from it. The inability to focus because of grief and languishing is now at odds with our need to be perpetually productive.
Social distancing and an increasingly online work life has, ironically, brought our jobs and colleagues within closer reach, while pushing our loved ones far away. Our email inboxes and meetings are accessible within the click of a button, and on multiple devices. The blurring of boundaries between the home space and work space has resulted in individuals putting in longer hours, as well as multitasking (for example, checking updates while on a Zoom call). The absence of a commute and other activities like being able to go to the gym or out for a meal has meant that our minds don't have time to prepare for the next work task, or ways to separate and structure the different hours of our days.
Also read on Firstpost: Re-thinking productivity during the pandemic, countering a culture obsessed with being 'useful'
An essay in The Conversation suggests changing our lives to mimic how they used to be pre-pandemic " taking time off, having casual conversations and trying to separate the assigned work spaces in our houses from the spaces where we spend off-time. The Harvard Business Review says that burnout is a subjective, individual issue that needs individual-specific solutions and preventive strategies, which involve self-reflection, compassion for the self and support from one's employers.
More on the intersection of mental health and the coronavirus pandemic on Firstpost: