by Vejay Steede
Mental health is important. Modern society is increasingly more sensitive to mental health issues and the need to be mindful of one’s own emotional well-being. The encroachment of COVID-19, however, has brought with it societal restrictions and protocols that have triggered a rise in anxiety and depression around the world, including right here in Bermuda.
Mrs Latisha Lister-Burgess, Executive Director of Bermuda’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) describes the sharp rise here: “The World Health Organization (WHO) states that approximately 1 in 6 people will have a mental health issue in their lifetime, but over the past year, approximately 1 in 3 people have struggled with anxiety. This is mainly due to anxiety around job security, finances, relationship problems, and various other stressors due to the impact of COVID-19.”
Mrs Lister-Burgess continues, turning an eye toward the risks of shelter in place and working from home. “As we have been dealing with the impact of COVID-19 for over a year now, people may feel emotionally exhausted.
“We are meant to be social creatures, and for some people the social distance measures may lead to feelings of isolation. I have encouraged people to remember that it is vital to find ways to stay emotionally connected during this time and seek creative ways (drive-by parties, Zoom happy hours, etc.) to continue to engage with others to keep connections strong.
“During the past year, people have reported feeling additional stressors due to working at home while trying to home-school children, and often have a partner or other relatives working in the home at the same time. As their work/life balance dissipated, often relationship issues increased. The very real pressure of constant contact with their partner and/or children has been challenging at times and has highlighted the need for increased communication and conflict management skills during this time.”
On the topic of treatments available through the EAP and other resources, Mrs Lister-Burgess offers the following: “EAP offers talk therapy and can assist people in developing effective communication and conflict management skills in order to communicate their wants and needs to others in a healthy way.
“Some of the self-care tools that can assist with feelings of anxiety are: meditation, breathing exercises, affirmations, journaling, practicing gratitude and mindfulness exercises. Medication can also be helpful and can be prescribed through a GP or psychiatrist.”
Executive Director Lister-Burgess closes by reminding us of the importance of taking care of our own mental health: “It is important that we normalize asking for support. In these challenging times, it is vital that people commit to improving their mental health, developing healthy relationships, and actively choosing self-care.
“The same way we go to the doctor annually to have a check-up to make sure our physical health is good, people would benefit from having a ‘mental health check-up’ to make sure that they have the tools that they need to ensure that they are emotionally healthy.”
Dr Gemma Harris, Director of Corporate Wellness Services and Senior Clinical Psychologist at Solstice, also asserts that anxiety and depression are the two most prevalent mental health issues both globally, and in Bermuda.
On the effect of COVID-19, Dr Harris states: “Solstice has witnessed a significant increase in new referrals, and the return of past clients, as people try to understand and manage the impact of the pandemic. We have experienced that the situation is affecting our clients in quite diverse ways, however, common themes have related to uncertainty (for example, adapting to restrictions, having to change future plans, feeling unable to move forward, and concerns about future stability), heightened anxiety about job and/or financial stability, adapting to home working (often creating loneliness and isolation) and relationship/family challenges.
“Whilst some people have presented with concerns specifically related to the covid19 virus, this has been a relatively small proportion of clients. Whilst these difficulties appear to impact our clients across the age range, we are noticing that young adults (18 to 25) may be more prone to feeling that their plans are on hold.”
Dr Harris continues, “Working from home seems to have created quite a dichotomous response, with some people reporting that they love the freedom to work more flexibly and feel more focused. However, by contrast many are reporting that their work-life balance is poorer when they work from home, and that they are finding it isolating and demotivating.
“Many times, clients feel disconnected from their teams after protracted periods of home working. We suspect that the range of experiences may be a product of the type of work, the suitability of the home environment and personality factors.
“Solstice offers a Corporate Wellness Program that can support employers and their employees in thinking about the challenges of working from home. This includes employee assistance, as well as team building, psychological support for teams, and helping employers reflect on their systems and processes.”
In closing, Dr Harris offers some strong advice for maintaining sanity during this surreal time: “The impact of the pandemic is significant, far-reaching and protracted. As such, we expect that most people will, at some point, be impacted emotionally.
“It makes perfect sense for us to be anxious and fearful, and for our threat systems to be activated. When our threat systems are activated, it means that we are more vigilant to risk, and as such we may be anticipating future risk possibilities. Whilst this is very normal and functional, in the case of Covid19 (which is a protracted risk) we run the risk of being anxious and on alert for long periods, which is likely to be stressful and exhausting.
“Counterbalancing this important and necessary threat response with self-care is really important. Hence, making time for hobbies, relaxation time, and self-care is vital. Give yourself time to switch off and reset. That might be taking a break from reading about the pandemic. Try to implement generally good care routines like getting decent sleep, exercise, eating healthily and managing a good work-life balance.
“Be careful of more harmful coping strategies such as alcohol and drugs, gambling, and excessive spending. Stay connected socially as best you can, perhaps making contact via virtual means if physical contact seems risky. We tend to be social creatures, so social contact is important. Whilst we all want to protect our physical health, we cannot forget about our mental health in the process.”