• Dr Vicki Connop

Mental health and self-isolation

3 weeks into self-isolation and I notice that my mental health is going subtly downhill.

I’m a skilled, resourced person, a mental health professional. I have a nice comfortable home, work and connections with friends and family. I have good daily self-care practices which include yoga and walking, connection with nature, eating healthy meals and sleeping regular hours. I'm doing all the ‘right’ things.

And yet, I feel my mental health going downhill.

It’s an insidious slide. A little more anxiety here, a little more irritability there. The mood getting lower, productivity declining. A restlessness takes hold of my body and mind, unable to focus on any one thing, unable to decide what to watch, what to read, what to eat, what to do.

It’s hard to pin down. Yes, there are worries – will I make enough money to pay the mortgage? Will my family overseas get sick with the virus? How will I cope if they’re sick and I can’t travel to be with them? What if I lose loved ones? How long until I can see my family again?

It’s all of these things and none of them at the same time. It’s a subtle grief for life as I knew it. The losses and worries pile one on top of another, hard to pin down, hard to articulate. It’s multi-layered. It’s bigger than anything my generation has experienced. It’s impossible to process and digest all the moving parts. The ground is shifting beneath my feet.

There’s gratitude too. I’m healthy, alive and so (touch wood) are my loved ones. I’m safe and sheltered in a country that’s taking decisive action to protect people’s wellbeing, and has layers of financial support in place for those experiencing hardship.

And yet, my mental health is feeling the pressure.

There are things that don’t help. Too much time on screens. The blue light scrambling the hormones in my brain. Hours of on-line conversation leaving me edgy, tense, with headaches and more restless sleep. But the need to reach out, work, stay connected, stay informed is strong.

I find myself scrolling through too much social media. Scrolling, scrolling. Seeking what? A hit of something. A laugh, some heartfelt words, some validation of my own experience. Connection. But just like a drug, those hits come at a price. They can leave me feeling worse than before, disconnected, dazed, lacking. Judging myself in comparison to an idealised version of other people’s worlds.

If my mental health is going downhill, I wonder what’s happening for others out there? What’s happening for those who were already grappling with anxiety and depression? What’s happening for those more than 100,000 families who have already lost loved ones? And all the ones to come? What’s happening for those who’ve lost jobs, small businesses, the income they relied on week to week to feed their families? What’s happening for those who are isolating alone? Or in tiny cramped housing? Those who have physical health issues that make it likely the virus could be deadly? What’s happening to those essential workers putting themselves on the front line to care for the sick or stack the supermarket shelves?

If my mental health is going downhill, I wonder what's happening to yours? It will show up in different ways for different people. Some will become low and tired, others edgy, restless, anxious. Some will drink more, smoke more. Some will throw themselves into busyness as a distraction, others will become lost in a haze of Netflix and social media. Some will argue with loved ones, some will yell at the kids. Some will eat or sleep too much, others won’t eat or sleep much at all. Some will reach out for support and others will suffer in silence.

There is a global mental health crisis unfolding alongside the physical health crisis and it needs our attention. It needs honest conversation, a willingness to show up for each other, to tell it how it is, to listen without judging or trying to fix, or glossing over with false positivity. An ability to say ‘yes, that makes sense you feel that way' or 'yes, me too’. By allowing our most vulnerable feelings to surface we reduce the risk of acting them out, and we give others permission to voice their vulnerabilities too. We start a conversation that leaves each of us feeling less alone, less flawed, less like we’re failing. We discover that we are all in this together, it’s called the human condition and sometimes it can really suck.

Be kind to yourself and others. Reach out, find support, express how you feel, the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s OK not to be OK in the middle of a pandemic. I’m giving myself permission to voice this, perhaps you can too.

If you are in need of professional support for your mental health, contact your GP or a registered mental health professional, or call Lifeline on 0800 543354

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