Going mental

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Mental health awareness is one important concern that has thankfully been gaining traction, especially among the younger generation, in the years before this pandemic hit. We have slowly but surely succeeded in raising awareness and breaking the taboo and stigma that used to come with mental illnesses, resulting in the improved quality of life, and even saving the lives of those affected.

Over the past 8 months, as Filipinos endured one of the longest, strictest yet directionless lockdowns in the world; almost all of us have adapted to the so-called “new normal.” We have slipped into our routines of mask wearing, physical distancing, face shield overkill, obsessive-compulsive handwashing and sanitizing, removing clothes and immediately taking showers upon reentering our homes. We need to learn these skills and protocols if our world is ever going to be normal because even though the news of accelerating vaccine development may give hope; we simply cannot count on our bungling government that makes bombastic promises but has been found severely lacking when it comes to delivery.

As the months pass and most of us can confidently say we have learned to live with COVID-19, mental health is one aspect that many of us now most likely feel we should’ve given more attention. 8 months in, stories of mental health struggles are emerging and many of us are starting to worry and feel inadequately prepared to face such challenges.

In my quarantine experience, the most vulnerable to mental health struggles would be the elderly. These are people who know and understand the threat of COVID-19 but the isolation and loneliness that comes with keeping safe can be overwhelming. As routines have been disrupted and social circles obliterated, many who have been able to stave off mental health issues have fallen into anxiety, depression and despair.

What makes it more challenging for those of us who are more or less aware of mental health issues is the isolation that has been forced upon us is making it even more difficult to spot the signs and symptoms that could lead to early detection and interventions. How can we do that for our friends and family who could be vulnerable when we hardly see each other anymore?

Based on the stories I’ve been hearing, we need to be extra alert and observant these days. Friends and family members who have a general idea of the red flags to watch out for is the first defense against mental illness. The added challenge of less face-to-face interaction means we will have to exert more effort in observing vulnerable loved ones and friends.

Note that even if we somehow spot mental health red flags, we still have to intervene and convince our loved ones that something is wrong and they need to get help. Even before the pandemic hit, this was already the biggest hurdle because of the stigma of mental illness. Too many of us saw mental illness as a source of embarrassment, a sign of weakness, an incurable curse. In this age of video call meetings, convincing someone obviously suffering from mental health issues to admit to having a problem and seeking help becomes an even greater challenge. Eye-to-eye contact and the reassurance of physical touch still counts for a lot, especially for those who are already dealing with demons.

To be honest, I was afraid for my Tita Ninfa aka Twinkling when the Daily Star was forced to shut down. Her routine of 38 years had been massively disrupted and as a super senior single lady who places a lot of value of family, she had been isolated from her extended family for far too long. She is the biggest reason why those of us who could, moved our heavens and earths to find the ways and means to get her pet project back on track. Maybe we underestimated her because she proved to be one tough cookie, but if you come to think of it, her experience is not even an extreme example of how the pandemic has affected people like her. Others may have not handled the changes and the stresses. Others may not have the same support system that would do anything and everything. Others could let their fear of COVID override everything else. Some could’ve fallen into preventable or treatable mental health illnesses.

Another example is my 98 year old neighbor. I reckon I can count on my hand the number of times she has had visitors since March. I used to pay her a visit every now and then during the ECQ but now that I’m almost normalized, I am not comfortable being in contact with her. She doesn’t do video calls, and when talking to her in person, you have to be close to her because she is already hard of hearing. Physical distancing is practically impossible.  But when she calls me over, I cannot say no. I will come over to her room, be in close contact with her so she can see me and hear me, she will talk and I will be there.

 COVID is real. But so is mental illness. If we can take over the top measures to protect ourselves from the former, we should also make an effort to prevent and address the latter. There will be conflicts, especially when it comes to physical distancing, but based on what we have already seen these past months, we will have to find the ways and means to protect and take care of our loved ones the best way we know how.*

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