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COVID-19 and Us

24 March 2020 - Dr Jan Orman

Isn’t it ironic that, just when mental health practitioners are ramping up their discussion about social isolation and its really potent impact on mental health and wellbeing, a nasty little virus comes along that asks us all to adopt a lifestyle of social distancing for the sake of our health and that of our community.

Weathering the storm

What can we do to help people rise to the challenge of self-isolation and social distancing without it impacting on their wellbeing?

First of all there are two distinct issues here. Self-isolation means an arduous 14 days (maybe more) of trying to find something to keep our minds off whatever financial hardship our isolation is creating and keep ourselves amused at home without the company of friends, workmates or family members - thank goodness for modern technology to help us with that! Social distancing really is a different thing altogether.

Have you thought about what these measures are going to mean for you personally? Even if we avoid the need for self-isolation, we will all need to practice social distancing for possibly 6-12 months until we can all be vaccinated, or until we have developed immunity through exposure to the virus.

No more hugs!

No hugging and hand shaking may be the least of it! There may be no more family gatherings and celebrations, no yoga and pilates classes, no more dinners in nice restaurants or chats with friends over coffee in cafes, no more concerts and plays, no more cricket or footy, no more professional meetings and conferences and, of course, no more air travel. All the things that sit in place to enrich our lives and keep us mentally healthy will require careful consideration of the risks before we undertake them.

Part of me wishes I could just get a nice mild dose of the virus and develop some natural immunity and get on with my life – but at the moment we don’t even know if getting the infection does make you immune. Besides, whilst the probability of a mild dose is high, the chance of a not so mild, possibly even fatal experience, remains. Worse still is the thought of not being very sick myself but giving the infection to someone who dies from it.

You can see that I am well motivated for some social distancing!

What “distance” is enough?

Some conferences are actually going ahead at the moment, but they are providing additional guidelines and resources to allow people to attend to infection control and stay away from each other.  There’s alcohol gel in conference bags and all around the venue, food in individually wrapped containers and extra auditorium space so that people can sit at least two seats from their nearest neighbour. It all shows serious commitment to having the show go on! But no one really knows if these measures are enough.

GPs are being told that they don’t need to worry unless they have been less than a metre away from a suspected case for 15 minutes or more, but I’m not sure what the evidence is to support that advice.

What can we do then?

That brings me back to how we should manage our own wellbeing in these strange times, and help others manage theirs. Really this is just another life challenge that we are being asked to meet. Cognitive flexibility is sure to win the day.

We don’t have to go hungry while the supermarkets and take away restaurants still deliver. (If it goes on long enough, we may even have enough time to start growing a few vegetable and herbs ourselves). How about a dinner party where everyone stays in their own home, orders in or cooks and sets a place at the table for the computer, joining friends virtually for the meal?

Why not watch TV or a sporting fixture with friends in a virtual space, talking via phone or Skype or some other platform while we all watch the same event or program. 

The people who provide the Down Dog yoga app were quick off the mark to begin a publicity campaign to remind people that it is possible to do your yoga practice at home at times when going to the studio is not OK. Apps (like Smiling Mind and Insight Timer) for meditation can do the same. There are, no doubt, any number of online exercise programs as well. 

And as for work, there will definitely be some businesses and jobs that find workarounds hard to achieve, but how good it is going to be for quality of life for many when more businesses allow employees to work from home and have meetings online rather than face-to face.

And then what?

This thing isn’t going to last forever but it might go on for a while but necessity, the famous mother of invention, might provide us with some new ideas that will enrich our lives after the crisis is over.

Perhaps for some of us this is might be a small gift to help us experiment with behavioural change that could just make life better in the long run.

Join Black Dog Institute’s Mental Health Community of Practice to stay connected with other health professionals during physical distancing: www.blackdog.org.au/CoP 

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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