The Malta Independent 8 April 2020, Wednesday

‘Be easy on yourself and do what you can in these uneasy times’ – Mental Health Commissioner

Karl Azzopardi Sunday, 22 March 2020, 10:30 Last update: about 15 days ago

The Coronavirus outbreak has imposed a number of restrictions on societies all over the globe, which has given rise to anxieties and fears that no one could have been prepared for.

The Malta Independent on Sunday contacted Dr John Cachia, the Commissioner of Mental Health, who explained how people can cope with their stress during these trying times.

Cachia explained that, in Malta, “these challenging days go counter to the prevailing maxim of ‘I want it all and I want it now’ but we must move towards sensible expectations.”

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One of the main stressors is the need for social distancing. This is a massive change in routine for anyone who is used to being surrounded by others on a daily basis; even going to a friend’s house starts to feel like a matter of life and death.

Undoubtedly, this causes a strain on one’s emotions and mental health, but, as Cachia puts it, “social distancing does not mean social isolation.”

The first point of action is to avoid denial and acknowledge the importance of social distancing and that staying inside can be a stressful reality. Overlooking the reality can be harmful to our loved ones so we must learn to adapt accordingly.

It all starts with taking care of oneself, including their body. “Deep breaths, stretching, meditation and regular exercises which can be done at home are helpful. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs,” Cachia suggested.

In order to reduce mental strain, one should try to manage their media intake, as hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting. “Set a few times a day where you will check for updates. Stick to reliable news outlets. Rumours spread quickly and feed into the panic, increasing stress and anxiety.”

Therefore, it is important to make time to unwind and try to do some other activities you enjoy.

This can be achieved by looking for opportunities that are happening around us. For example, if you are working from home, you have more autonomy. If your children are at home, you have more time to re-discover crafts, hobbies and other activities together.

One should also keep in mind that we are living in an age where communication is extremely facilitated through technology. So one can still phone, text and use social media to connect with family and friends.

Cachia believes that social media is also beneficial in showing acts of kindness which, as studies have shown, induce feelings of pleasure and reward in our brain. “Even if it’s something small or mundane, like a funny meme or cute picture; letting someone else in on it, amplifies the good feelings you got from it.”

He explained that “taking care of yourself, your friends, and your family can help you cope with stress. Helping others cope with their stress can also make your community stronger.”

However, there are some individuals who are more vulnerable to stress such as children and adolescents.

Some common changes in younger children include excessive crying or irritation and returning to behaviour they have outgrown. On the other hand, adolescents might refuse to take up studies at home, avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past and increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

He explained that children and adolescents react, in part, on what they see from the adults around them.

Therefore, the best way to relieve stress is to take time to talk with them about the COVID-19 outbreak, reassure them that they are safe and let them know it is ok if they feel upset. Adults should also share their own methods of dealing with stress so that they can learn how to cope from it.

There are other vulnerable groups like healthcare workers and people who have been released from quarantine, who might fly under the radar due to being in the heat of the action.

“Trauma is a distressing experience and responders (healthcare workers) should acknowledge that traumatic stress can impact anyone helping families after a traumatic event,” Cachia explained. “Responders need to learn and recognise that the symptoms are both physical (fatigue, illness) and mental (fear, withdrawal, guilt).”

These individuals need to create a menu of personal self-care and leisure activities, take time to sleep and exercise, and spend time with their family and friends. Response leaders should also play their part and ensure that work schedules and roaster allow for staff to take such measures.

Persons who have been released from quarantine have experienced the real fears and anxieties that come with thinking you have contracted the virus.

Cachia explained that one might harbour guilt feelings about not being able to perform normal work or parenting duties during quarantine. He warned that friends or loved ones may have unfounded fears of contracting the disease form direct contact. However, one should understand their fears and help them to cope with the situation.

These individuals should also look into professional help as “stress from the experience of monitoring yourself or being monitored by others for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 may have long-standing effects.”

With the collaboration of the Mental Health Services, support for stress of health care workers has been organised and has started to be provided. The commission is now exploring the expansion of this service to distraught citizens who are assessed as demonstrating signs of excessive stress and anxiety when speaking to helpline staff.

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