By Trina Priscilla Ng, Commentary Editor
It’s morning. Across the island, we stumble awake and towards our laptops for the usual morning meeting. On the surface, it seems like nothing has changed. Time has passed, and we have gotten into the swing of a new, home-based routine. When there is work at hand, there is no time at all to deal with the stress and anxiety caused by being in the midst of a pandemic.
As we sleep, however, these fears haunt us in the form of nightmares. If you have been suffering from “pandemic dreams”, know you are not alone. Ongoing research has indicated that pandemic dreams have been happening more frequently, and are often negative and stressful.
For those among us with the privilege of employment or schooling, having to conduct the entirety of our work and social lives online has led to undeniable fatigue. Days blend into the night, and the line between home and work blurs for many.
This stress is evident — Antoinette Patterson from Safe Space™ has told us that COVID-19 has brought with it a 64% increase in traffic on their platform, with a rise in "healthy" individuals (working adults) starting to have anxiety and depression, which was distressing because they did not know what was happening to them. The increase in such cases came from sudden unemployment or isolation.
Coping with pandemic fatigue
In Singapore, COVID-19 has forced us to place mental health in the spotlight once again. With circuit breaker forcing most into physical isolation, there has been an increased need for mental health services.
Faced with isolation and fear, the ghosts of mental illness reemergence. Frustratingly, seeking such help has become more difficult at the same time - psychological treatment was removed from the list of essential services that were exempted from initial workplace closures.
To overcome the physical distance, organisations like Safe Space™ have been working to function as a mental wellness platform providing a safe space to strengthen mental resilience through teletherapy support and preventive mental health education. Safe Space™, founded by Antoinette Patterson and Navaneeth Sreekandan, introduced their teletherapy feature as the circuit breaker began. Since then, many have chosen to move their therapy sessions online. At Safe Space™, more therapists needed to be recruited to meet this demand.
Increase in the number of “healthy” adults experiencing anxiety
The stresses caused by change do not spare anyone. Apart from existing clients, there was a simultaneous rise in "healthy" clients (working adults) seeking therapy. These people were starting to have anxiety and depression as a likely result of sudden unemployment or isolation. The organisation also saw a rise in domestic cases at home across students and women, a rise in demand for grief and relationship counselling services, as well as increased rates of divorce.
Now that Singapore is in Phase 2 of reopening its economy, many have comforted by being able to return to seeing familiar (albeit masked) faces. At the same time, the slow return to normalcy may pose a challenge to some.
Having internalised fear of being unnecessarily out in public, there is anxiety surrounding taking public transport and being in public spaces. At the same time, many relish the time saved from having to make a journey to and from work. Some have regained a semblance of work-life balance.
Photographs of friends’ culinary endeavours and roads quietly bustling with runners remind us that remote working allows us to make time for the other things in life. To better cope with stress, Antoinette Patterson has recommended a few ways to keep ourselves mentally healthy.
Firstly, we must be kind to ourselves, and remember that we are all amidst a very stressful time, and are doing the best we can, with the resources we have. For those who have a therapist, she recommends thinking of your therapist as a coach. You may find it useful to treat your therapist as your sounding board, your personal cheerleader, and a source of new strategies on how to cope with difficult situations.
Caring for our mental health is not a radical choice - it is a necessity. Small changes can be made for a better life - such as by integrating breaks into a working day, picking up hobbies, or reaching out to loved ones.
Some may benefit from mindfulness practices, which has already been integrated into Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. There seems to be a long way to go before mental health is placed at the forefront of priorities among institutions.
While we need to push for organisational change, such as by encouraging companies to take steps to ensure that their employees are mentally healthy, we need to make little changes in our lives in the meantime. Actions taken do not have to be grandiose - it can just include being encouraging, kind and supportive to those around us, especially to essential workers at the frontline.
So, the next time it is morning, as you make your way to your laptops, or even to work and school physically - pause - and take a moment for yourself. Perhaps, drop your loved ones a kind note, or meet up with (less than five) friends.
Trina Priscilla Ng is a Commentary Editor for The Convergence. She believes in the value of encouraging discourse about pertinent issues and feels most strongly about healthcare and about inequality. At other times, she is a medical student at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.