The World Health Organization (WHO) is each year acknowledging mental health on 10th of October, which is the World Mental Health Day. Although each year the theme is different, the aim remains the same: raising awareness about mental health. This year, the focus is on COVID-19 and its impact on mental health.
We in ESN Finland want to do our part by exploring some of the mental impacts caused by the pandemic situation.
Throughout the spring, people all over the world had to adapt to completely new and different ways of working, studying and living their everyday life. For some, the routine has significantly changed when companies have needed to lay off workers, numerous students have been disappointed as expected summer jobs were denied and parents have been forced to homeschool their kids while at the same time working from home. Universities have been forced to move lectures and classes online and several events that we have been looking forward to, have been cancelled or postponed. We have been asked to take care of hand hygiene, practice social distancing and wear masks in crowded places.
In addition to the physical cahnges, constant worry about our own health, as well as that of our family, relatives and friends, takes toll on our mental health and energy. Especially elderly and people with certain conditions are vulnerable to the virus, and to have any form of personal connection to such a group has caused huge stress to a number of people. Some of us have even had to deal with the loss of people close to us.
COVID-19 has been more or less on everyone’s mind for the whole year. While there always are some who can cope with uncertainty and stress better than most, many people struggle with the unknown. This in turn has an effect on their mental health. Practicing social distancing can lead to feelings of loneliness and low mood. Constantly thinking about COVID-19 can lead to increased anxiety, increased stress levels and poor quality of sleep.
These factors, when prolonged, can contribute to more substantial mental health imbalances. Recognising these issues and seeking help early on, or supporting those who might be suffering from these symptoms, is vital.
The WHO reports that episodes of depression, anxiety and insomnia have had a visible increase as a result of the pandemic.
Due to the vast coverage on COVID-19, it is hard to miss the flood of related news, tweets and tiktoks. The flow of information is constant and it is very easy to get caught in the current and to feel that we need to know everything and we need to know it now. If these types of thoughts and feelings persist and turn unpleasant or compulsive, the whole pandemic and future might begin to feel worrisome. “What if my relative gets infected?” “When can I meet my friends again?” “What if I lose my job/income?" "What if I graduate and won't find a job?"
Worrying can cause significant stress and anxiety. These are normal feelings to have and can be useful in protecting us from dangerous situations but when these thoughts continue abnormally long or are particularly strong and limit everyday performance, it can be classified as a disorder.
Anxiety disorders can manifest in many different ways such as generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific types of phobias, post-traumatic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is important to recognise the symptoms, seek mental health services and to get treatment if needed.
Some general symptoms of anxiety disorders include:
- Continual stable anxiety without any specific stressors or anxiety related to certain situations
- Trouble concentrating
- Bodily symptoms, such as increased heart rate, profound sweating, difficulty breathing, dizziness, nausea, tremor as well as muscle aches, headaches and fatigue
If you feel like you might be experiencing many of these symptoms nearly every day for a long time, it might be good to get an appointment with a healthcare professional. Anxiety disorders are treatable. Commonly prescribed treatment includes medication and therapy.
This pandemic has come with many changes to our routines, changes that are necessary in order to combat the spread of the disease. Perhaps the most visible part is social distancing. While social distancing is proven to be effective against the spread of COVID-19, it is also important to acknowledge the consequences it can have on our mental health. While it is the duty of the society to take care of its citizens mental health and provide professional mental health services, friends and family can also support each other even more in order to stay safe and healthy together.
Social distancing means keeping at least 1.5-2 meter distance from other people. Social distancing guidelines usually also recommend avoiding crowded places, events with more than varying amounts of people (these recommendations change from region to region!) and in general limiting how many friends we can see in one space. Remote studying means less interaction with other students.
Depression is defined as a group of symptoms, that have lasted for more than two weeks. Stressful periods in life, negative life events, past mental health history and genetics can lead to development of depression.
Some symptoms of depression could include
- Depressed mood
- Loss of pleasure in things which usually bring joy
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Decreased or increased appetite and weight loss or gain
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
- Reduced concentration on tasks requiring attention
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Changes in the amount of sleep or insomnia
If you recognise that you or any people in your social circles are experiencing some of these symptoms for extended periods of time, it could be depression. In this case it is recommendable to see a doctor. Depression has treatment methods, many of which are usually effective.
Maintaining Mental Well-Being
There are various ways in which we can maintain mental health during these extraordinary times. One of the very first steps is to accept the reality of how we conduct our everyday business. When staying at home for remote work, study or otherwise, it is important to take care of our basic needs, such as:
- Do not do any type of work in bed. Our brain might subconsciously begin to associate the bed as a place of awake time when doing so. This makes falling asleep more difficult by the night. The commonly accepted advice is that bed should be only for sleep and sex.
- Maintain a regular schedule. Go to bed at a similar time each night and try to wake up routinely at the same time. This will help with sleep quality.
- Take breaks and exercise. Our mind needs rest. Remember to take regular breaks while working on anything. Exercise is an important factor of not only our physical health but also our mental well-being.
- Eat regular meals. Regular proper meals are an important part of a balanced and energy-filled day, aiding in optimising concentration. It is important to eat healthy too. Unhealthy meals and snacks can affect our blood sugar in unwanted ways, which in turn can affect our energy levels during the day.
- Video chat with your friends and family or call them. Socialising is one of the key factors in mental well-being. It is important that when we converse with our friends and family, we also actively listen and support each other.
Since social distancing affects our social relationships so much, we want to focus on one key element: active listening.
MIELI Mental Health ry focuses on active listening in their campaign for World Mental Health Day this year. It is widely acknowledged that being genuinely heard and seen has a huge importance for our mental health. Being listened to increases everyone's mental health, well-being, self-esteem and self-compassion, thanks to genuine experiences of being valued. In-depth conversations also strengthen our relationship with and connection to other people, something that in turn matters to our mental health as well. As a listener, we receive additional benefits such as the gifts of new insights, knowledge and perspectives.
We can all practice to become better listeners. “How are you?” is the most commonly asked question in all conversations, but how often do we actually ask with the intention and willingness to receive something else than “I’m fine, thanks!”? We have been socially conditioned to treat the question as a small talk device instead of honest conversation.
To improve our listening skills we need to practice "active listening." Active listening means making conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but more importantly, the complete message being communicated. There are some key active listening techniques we can use in order to become better listeners.
- Pay full attention to the other person and try to minimize disturbing elements in the surroundings. Pick your battle, not everyone is ready to share their deeperst struggles while you run into them in the grocery store and by default ask “How are you?”.
- Use your body language to show that you are listening.
- Provide feedback, ask clarifying questions.
- Try to defer judgement.
- Respond appropriately and respectfully
To learn more about the World Mental Health Day 2020 at the WHO’s website.
Toni Tamminen (President of ESN Finland)
Daniela Mård (National Training Coordinator of ESN Finland)
Veera Jäntti (Communication Manager of ESN Finland)