Words | Saliha Rehanaz

TRIGGER WARNING: The following article contains sensitive information about mental health, which some readers may find upsetting. Resources are available at the end of this article to provide help and support.

As the final embers of the bushfires were put out, the nation prepared itself for one of the most unprecedented events in the history of civilization – the COVID-19 lockdown. It began as a minute joke with panic-stricken Australians emptying toilet paper and hand sanitizer shelves, but it soon turned into a post-apocalyptic lifestyle.

From being able to eat out whenever to becoming Michelin star chefs in the confinement of our homes, this lockdown has taken a major toll in our fast-paced everyday lives.  Amid concerns that social distancing is impossible to enforce in schools and universities, educational institutions have transitioned to online learning and individuals are working from home wherever possible. With all these drastic changes in our normal routine, we consistently find ourselves questioning the impact this lockdown has on our mental health.

With everything turning completely upside down, it’s not shocking that in its eight years of operation, online mental health clinic MindSpot has never been busier. Developed by a team of mental health professionals and led by researchers from Macquarie University in partnership with the Australian Federal Government, this clinic service has had a 100 per cent increase in web visits and up to 75 per cent more social interactions. In fact, more than a quarter million people are accessing Instagram and Facebook advice every week and about 4000 people are logging onto the website each day, on top of a large volume of phone calls.

Nick Titov, Executive Director of the MindSpot Clinic, said that users span the broad spectrum of society. Beyond emergency and health, they include non-traditional frontline workers, such as taxi drivers, supermarket employees, parents and people experiencing racial abuse.

“The increase in anxiety and concern is normal,” he says. “A lot are just keen to learn how to manage their own conditions, to manage reactions and concerns. There are also a lot of people who have underlying existing mental health symptoms who are being very careful to look after themselves.”

Dr. Gemma Sicouri, from Macquarie’s Centre for Emotional Health, also says the impact of school closures will be different for every family on a practical and psychological level but so far, there is not a lot of research available on the impact of school closures on children’s overall wellbeing.

She believes the first step is to acknowledge school closures are a major life change and this could lead to a grief or a loss response. Students in years 11 and 12 are most likely to have particular worries around how it will affect their HSC.

“They might be sad, anxious and overwhelmed and parents play an important role in supporting and validating how they are feeling,” Dr. Sicouri added.

To understand more about the relationship between self-isolation and mental health, Grapeshot approached academics from Macquarie’s Department of Psychology to comprehend the evolving situation around us.

Professor Blake Dear is the director of the eCentreClinic, which is a research unit that develops and evaluates a range of psychologically-based treatments for common health and chronic physical health conditions. He also has a strong interest in trans-diagnostic treatments for anxiety and depression.

Upon asking him about some of the common issues young people are likely to face as they practice social distancing or self-isolation, Professor Dear says many of them will revolve around the disruption in our routines, daily activities and social interactions.

“We know regular and healthy daily routines, such as meal and bed times, are essential for good mental health. Young people’s daily activities can be impacted, and these are also important because they give a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Then there’s relationships and social interactions, which are essential and are obviously affected by social distancing.”

 Amidst these chaotic times, many young adults talk about feeling a sense of calmness. 

To explain this, Professor Dear says, “It is very normal for people to have a wide range of responses to major changes and challenges in our lives. Some people will be calm because they’re largely unaffected by all the changes associated with COVID-19, and for some the changes will actually suit them. Others will be keeping a realistic perspective and finding ways (often without thinking about it) to keep up their routines, activities and social interactions- despite all the changes and challenges.”

One of the other drastic differences which has taken place in our lives, is our inability to physically meet other people. Yet, even with numerous video-calling technologies easily accessible, such as Facetime and Zoom, people still prefer to physically talk to others. When asked to explain the reason behind this, Professor Dear responded, “We’re most used to talking and interacting with people face-to-face, so it’s natural to prefer and want to talk to people face-to-face, especially with our nearest and dearest.

“However, it’s also true that talking online via digital technologies opens up lots of opportunities to connect and see each other – where we might not have been able to previously. For example, many people are now sharing drinks and meals (via video technologies) with their friends and family, where they might have previously done these things by themselves.”

While it might feel like this period may never end, and that our mental wellbeing may never recover from this exhausting phase, Dr. Dear also commented on the matter and said, “This period of social distancing and social restrictions is unlikely to have lasting long-term impacts on most people’s mental health. People are actually pretty resilient overall, and short periods of distress and significant change are a normal part of life – people tend to adjust quite well in time.”

Additionally, with people being at home more than usual, individuals are spending time on their phones or devices to engage with online activities and interact with more people online. However, it is important that we pay attention to the type of content that we are spending our time watching.

Dr. Jasmine Fardouly is a postdoctoral researcher, who is working at Macquarie’s Centre for Emotional Health. Her research focuses on the effects of social influences on young people’s mental and physical health, and she is particularly interested in understanding how social media use may impact users’ body image, mood and anxiety.

Dr. Fardouly says that it is difficult to really know the long-term effects of this social isolation because it is a very unusual experience. However, she mentions, “In regards to body image, if people are spending more time browsing idealized media, such as social media accounts or appearance-focused programs, then it could increase [young people’s] concern and focus on their own appearance.”

It can also be thought that there might be detrimental negative effects in an individual’s mental health with an increased time spent on social media. Dr. Fardouly clarifies the issue by saying that it essentially depends on what people are doing while they are on social media.

“Everyone’s experience on social media is slightly different because social media are user-generated. Increased time on social media could negatively impact mental health if people are viewing idealized content from others and judging others to have happier and better lives than themselves.

Viewing that type of content can also make people internalize societal ideas to a greater extent which can impact mental health if those ideals are deemed to be attainable. We need to be conscious of the content we are viewing that may cause harm.”

In addition, to improve our general mood, Dr. Fardouly also suggests that spending less time on technology is helpful for our overall well being.

“People could go for a walk, and leave their phones at home. [They] could also limit the time spent on technology to certain times in a day or leave phones in a separate room. Detoxing from technology can boost wellbeing, even if it is only for a short time.”

Along with Dr. Fardouly’s advice to take time in the day to relax and disconnect from technology and media, Professor Dear also suggested a few basic activities to ensure we are staying healthy:

1. Keeping up regular and healthy daily routines – getting up, showering, eating, exercising, sleeping at regular times are important for our mental health.

2. Keeping up enjoyable tasks, and meaningful activities – these are what give us pleasure, and a sense of purpose and accomplishment. 

3. Keeping our thoughts balanced and helpful – when we are distressed or dealing with difficult things in our lives, our thoughts can become more negative, unrealistic and unhelpful. 

4. Keeping connected, and engaged – finding new, creative and safe ways to keep our social interactions and maintain your relationships with friends and family. 

5. Dialing down the noise, and switching off regularly – distress can be infectious, and many people tend to focus and talk about their worries. The news media also likes to cover things people worry about and find distressing.

While simple activities such as the ones mentioned above can help us maintain our sanity safely through this pandemic, one vital behavior we must all ensure we are practicing is kindness. In recent weeks, uncertainty around the spread of COVID-19 has brought out the worst in people – we have all seen footage of shoppers fighting over toilet paper in supermarkets. But we have also witnessed people doing remarkable selfless acts for those around them, whether friends or strangers.

Professor Amanda Barnier from Macquarie University’s Department of Cognitive Science believes that actually, people are kind most of the time. 

“But perhaps when things are ‘normal,’ our acts of kindness are unconscious – we take them for granted. When things slide out of normality, as they have recently, we not only pay more attention to these random acts of kindness, but also do them more often.

“Humans strive for meaning and a sense of control,” she says. “Naturally, we feel better when we’re in control, and some people can feel extremely anxious when we’re out of control. So in times like this, we should focus on what we can control. It gives us structure.

“When you do something nice for someone else you see – immediately – that you can be effective,” she adds. “These acts of kindness we’re witnessing are one way to validate our sense of control and give us meaning. In making kind choices, we reassert who we are in the world and show we can still make a difference at a time when we are struggling to understand what we should be doing.

“Being kind shows us that not everything is uncertain.”

This need for kindness to protect our collective integration “doesn’t stop when times are not so great,” Professor Barnier says. “Social isolation is bad for our mental health – being kind helps strengthen social connections. But above and beyond that, in bad times, it helps give us a sense of purpose” – a sense that circumstances might have otherwise robbed us of.

So as we all practice social distancing, it is important we take care of our mental health and check up on others who may be thousands of miles away from us. While a simple ‘how are you’ might not cure this pandemic, it could stop someone’s life from spinning out of control.

Whatever you’re feeling during these challenging times, make sure you talk about it with someone.

Here are a few places you can call, in case you need some additional help and support.

MindSpot eClinic: 1800 61 44 34

Beyond Blue: 1800 512 348

Lifeline: 13 11 14

SANE Australia: 1800 187 263