Mental health in times of Covid-19

How it took a global pandemic and mandatory isolation for the modern society to speak up and start valuing sanity.

Maria Perez. 22 years old. Spanish, living in Denmark for an academic exchange since February of 2020. Isolated in a 30-square meter room for two months. Classes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., even on weekends. No family around. No interaction with the locals. Insomnia. Loss of appetite. Three panic attacks in the last week. She needed an end and she found it. She left one of the most secure countries in Europe for the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic. Her choice, considered crazy by many, turned out to be a bold, but calculated, decision to protect her mental health.

Three months ago, the pedagogy student said goodbye to her family and friends before moving to Aarhus, a city in the North of Denmark, to study the Nordic education system. She left Spain and entered, what some would say, an opposite universe. Different language, habits, traditions. This Viking land definitely differed from what the southern European countries would classify as a warm community. This did not stop her. The idea of doing an Erasmus was surrounded by a magical mist, which made even the adapting to challenges of a newcomer in a strange land an exciting adventure. Who knew this fairytale could be infected by more than a sock of reality?

The Covid-19 outbreak stopped the Danish country in the beginning of March. Maria had only a month to enjoy her new home when the national authorities decreed mandatory isolation. If you’ve ever experienced being the new girl or guy in a place you’ve never visited, then you understand that 30 days is not enough for you to create deep roots. She made friends at the local university and bonded quickly with her dormmates in the student housing she was living in, but her heart was still more red and yellow than red and white. 

“To be honest, it was quite hard to adapt because the culture here is really different from mine. Until I got settled, everything was confusing, but, afterwards, people were so kind to me that my time turned out being amazing. I made new friends, from different nationalities, that I really hope to see in a near future, when corona lets us travel again. We really became close, but now there is no point to stay here. I need to go back to Spain and stay with my real family.”

Maria’s decision to go back to her home country shocked a lot of people. “You’re crossing the whole continent in the middle of a pandemic?” a classmate asked her, surprised. “Yes,” she simply answered. Maria explained that she couldn’t keep living the way she was, but people didn’t seem to think that was “enough” for her to put herself at such risk.

“I was really being judged by everyone. They were thinking that I was crazy or something like that to be flying to ‘the most infected country in Europe right now.’ Some of them really tried to convince me to stay, saying that in here [Aarhus] I would be safer, because ‘at least you can go out on the street.’ I mean, I know in Spain things are worse than in Denmark, but at home you always feel more secure, not necessarily physically, but mentally and spiritually. And that’s what I need,” she exclaimed.

Seeing from the outside, Maria’s decision indeed seemed risky. The difference is that her beautiful exchange story got a dark twist far from everybody’s eyes. She explained that, when her life stopped because of the Covid-19 pandemic, she kept herself optimistic and continued her life as normal as possible. The problem was, with time going by and no sign of improvement on the horizon, the isolation started to have a bad effect in her mental health. 

“When everything started, I put my physical health first. I stayed at my dorm, studying, seeing movies, doing yoga, cooking, etc. I would not leave the house, only if it were super necessary, and I barely would see any of my friends, even those who I lived with in my house. I got to keep that for some time, however, after seven weeks, my body and mind started to show me that this wasn’t working.”

 (Credits: Pixabay)

Eminent Meltdown (or imminent catastrophe)

According to Maria, after a while, the amount of free time became way more than what she was previously used to. Assignments were done pretty fast, classes were ending one by one, there wasn’t much she needed to do. She faced that as a sign that maybe it was “time to relax.” That meant doing whatever she wanted to do, whenever she felt like it. But that backfired. 

“I started to feel bored. Every day was the same. I stopped watching the news, because the information only made me sad, and I started to do yoga, in order to relax. But, to be honest, I didn’t stick with anything for long. Netflix became lame and I didn’t feel like doing anything after that,” she said. 

For Ea Suzanne Akasha, a psychomotor therapist and a technical advisor for the International Red Cross, thinking that this is the time to relax is “the most stupid thing you can do.” The professional says that right now we need to plan our days and have a routine if we want to get through this pandemic mentally healthy. 

“When you have challenges and goals, life has meaning. You use your resources and focus your attention on something. When you think ‘this is the time to relax’, you don’t create any expectations, so you put yourself under very little stress. This is not good for your mind, especially if it happens for long periods of time. Small quantities of stress are healthy. It keeps us on our toes, it keeps us alert.”

The specialist explained that in times of crisis, like the one we are going through right now, it’s essential to create a schedule of activities. A routine that will help us manage our fears and give us focus. According to Suzanne, that way, our mind understands that we still have some control even in the middle of a chaotic situation. 

“You can be worried! It is completely normal. But transform the way you deal with that. Make it under your control. Like: ‘Ok. I’ll worry about this from 5-6pm. Now I am focusing in other tasks. When the time comes, I will concentrate my attention specifically to this problem that is making me tense.’ That sounds weird, but, with time and consistency, you will see that it works and you will be less anxious.”

Support: from wherever 

Ea Suzanne Akasha also explains that, even though it is natural to be worried, not everybody can go through this without help. She reminds us that people experience different levels of anxiety and some of these individuals will face more challenges than others. For Maria, the best, in her vision, was to go back to her community, where she would feel stronger to face this delicate experience. 

“She wasn’t happy in her exchange, facing anxiety while being all alone in a strange country, so she chose to go back home. Considering that she will take precautions and she is out of the risk group, her decision was completely reasonable,” the psychologist said. 

Suzanne stood by Maria’s decision to put her mental health as a priority and she called out other people who, because of this crisis, started to adopt a depressive behavior caused by fear. She says that, because of the Covid-19 outbreak, people are now reluctant to do things in general, even if they would normally do it in order to keep their minds healthy. “You don’t need to cross the whole continent in the middle of a pandemic, but don’t be afraid to go out for a walk in your neighborhood, if that’s important for you. Just be careful,” the specialist said. 

For Maria, it was clear. Being sad and alone in Denmark was more dangerous than taking a flight home. Not everybody understood, and many people called her out for what they thought was a “suicidal” and “foolish” attitude. However, after one call with her father, she was more sure than ever about her decision. 

“He was very emotional when we talked on the phone. He said that it is very difficult having me in another country in the middle of a situation like this. That his heart was hurting when thinking that I had to deal with it alone, and that he was by my side, no matter what I chose. That was what I needed to hear,” Maria said.  

She explained that, even though she learned many things while living in Aarhus, and she will forever have a special link with the country, the only place on Earth that she feels she can be happy and secure is in her community. 

“I understand that here [Denmark] I’m safer than in Spain, but that’s only my body. My mind needs my family right now. I cannot say that it is essential for everybody, because of course there are people who prefer to stay alone or with friends. However, for me, being with them is the only thing I can imagine will bring me peace.”

 (Credits: Pixabay)

Ready to Talk

According to the psychomotor therapist, Maria is not the only one paying extra attention to her mental health. She affirms that whenever there is a crisis, there is also an increase in the research about psychological topics. Suzanne says that mental health always matters, but right now, because the whole world is locked down for months, more and more individuals are acknowledging the troubles of the mind and are looking for solutions. 

“This is the first time in history that we are openly and seriously talking about how important mental health and social support are. For the Millennials, talking about emotions and feelings is normal, since they are growing up in an era of individualization, like ‘It’s her problem,’ is disappearing. But that’s not what other generations are used to. With the mandatory isolation, people from different times and places are acknowledging the veracity of conditions like anxiety, depression, etc., and becoming open to discuss, help and overcome,” she affirmed. 

Within the past years, the psychological medical sector has seen an increase in the number of people being diagnosed with anxiety. While in the past, in many other situations, you would be considered weak for having it, now this is a relatable experience for many. Agitation, difficulty to concentrate, insomnia, etc., these are becoming present in several homes as an effect of the 2020 lockdown.

“Panic attacks and anxiety disorders are a natural reaction from when your body is under too much stress. I can have it, you can have it, anyone can have it. But that doesn’t need to be the doom of our society. We have emotions and we need to learn how to react adequately,” the specialist said. 

My Digital Community

One of the main problems the health authorities are facing is getting the population to understand that they need to have physical distance, not social distance. Human beings rely on social relations, so people should not isolate themselves. Specialists strongly advise that people find innovative solutions so they can interact without meeting in person. 

“It’s normal to be worried, it’s natural, because the world is not a secure place right now. But you don’t need to be alone in this. Remind yourself to call your family and friends. Reach out and maybe arrange for a Zoom coffee or something else. A quick chat can be enough to lighten their day and even yours,” Suzanne said. 

There are a lot of groups that are having a hard time dealing with the stress and anxiety. For support, organizations like the Red Cross provides telephone lines and online chats specifically for this group. The initiative was built to give the proper care to those in need during the Covid-19 pandemic. With not only professionals ready to assist you with your own experiences, users can also learn how to correctly assist others, with the best responses and correct behavior when dealing with someone who is having some kind of episode. 

The Reunion

Right before publishing this article, I received a message from Maria. She told me all about her reunion with her family, from her father picking her up in the airport to her mom and brother jumping from the couch when she walked by the front door. Tears, screams and a lot of hugs were mentioned in her quick, but detailed texts. She didn’t say anything about the journey she went through to get to Spain. The fear of the long trip, the shock of seeing the streets completely empty, weren’t even mentioned. Instead, words of gratitude and messages full of love appeared in my screen. According to her, “ words aren’t enough to describe this kind of happiness.” I feel for her. I feel proud because she allowed herself to listen to her feelings and took action to lift her spirit, regardless other’s comments. 

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