As Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) wraps up here in the UK, I find myself reflecting on my mental health in relation to the COVID19 pandemic and related lockdowns. Regular readers will know that I regularly consider my mental health and that, at times, I have worried about where I might fall on the spectrum. (Thankfully, mental health professionals don’t seem worried about me and that’s what counts. But I digress…)
The focus of this year’s MHAW seems to have centred around the impact that isolation and loneliness can have on people’s mental wellbeing – whether they were already coping with mental health issues or not. Indeed, even outside of MHAW, there has been a lot of talk in the news and on social media about the mental health impacts of social distancing and self-isolation.
With so many people around the world facing some form of reduced movement or face-to-face social interactions, it is unsurprising to hear that people are experiencing mental health issues. For some people, it might be a new experience. For other people, it might be the re-emergence of mental health concerns. And for others, it might be a heightening or worsening of their existing concerns or conditions.
People are experiencing isolation for the first time. People are living in unsafe or unstable environments (mentally, emotionally, and physically). People are facing fear and uncertainty about the future, their health, and the health of their loved ones. They are facing economic hardship and food insecurity. And people are struggling. No, not everyone, but far too many.
And here I am, managing.
I am one of the “lucky” ones and my mental health has fared quite well over these past weeks and months. Yes, I have been a bit more upset and unsettled than normal about being an expat, living so extremely far away from my parents at a time like this, but technology has helped us to stay in contact.
As I mentioned before, I am coming into this time of great upheaval in a relatively strong position (a “privileged” position some would say). I am not dealing with economic stress and uncertainly, I am not locked down in sub-standard housing or with people who put my physical, emotional, or mental health at risk, and I don’t have to put my health at risk by venturing into shops or taking public transportation. But more than that, social isolation and being alone (and lonely) is normal for me and has been since my life as a widow began 11 years ago. And sure, that sounds like it would mean that my mental health should be suffering right now. But weirdly, I am coping better with my isolation and loneliness because I don’t feel alone in my situation.
Yes, all of the sudden most of the world knows what it’s like to be lonely and isolated from family and friends. And that means that I am a part of something instead of being apart from something. Whilst my heart truly aches for the many people who are struggling with the lockdowns, I have noticed that my own mental health seems much stronger than I would have expected it to be.
It’s an odd feeling because in “normal” circumstances, being so isolated and alone would make me feel removed from the world. When I go travelling or spend the Christmas holidays alone, there is always a point where I move from managing the solitude with confidence to feeling sad and lonely. And the longer my solitude continues, the more the sad and lonely feelings infiltrate my mind – feelings that are further heightened by watching other “happy couples” enjoying sightseeing together or seeing social media posts from “happy families” who are enjoying a busy Christmas season.
But I’m not seeing that now. Instead, I see that everyone else is alone; everyone else is wishing that they had somewhere to go or that they could see their family or friends. Everyone else is alone, and sometimes also lonely. And that means I am not alone, which helps me to feel less lonely.
That makes it sound as if I am happy that the world is now filled with isolated and lonely people, which isn’t the case at all. Indeed, I would rather not have others experience these feelings. But, as this is the reality we’re in, I am just noting how my own emotions aren’t as negative as I would have expected. And I do believe that is because I am in good company in my solitude.
Of course, I like to over analyse things, so I find myself wondering if my coping is really because I feel that I am experiencing something with “the rest of the world” or if it’s because I feel quite emotionally and mentally healthy in general or if, maybe, it’s because all of these years of being alone have just made this “normal” for me.
The truth is that I might never know. But what I do know is that I feel strong enough to face a few more weeks or months of this solitude. And whilst I am coping, I do wish I knew how much longer I will have to cope. Because even though I feel OK, and even though I am coping, I am getting bored. I am very aware that I need human interactions and that I miss just living a normal life.
It won’t be long before I am marking three months of isolation, so maybe I’ll spend the time in between now and then thinking about the boredom that I am experiencing, and how I can stop that boredom from turning into a mental health trigger. After all, just because I am coping with the COVID19 lockdown today doesn’t mean that I will be coping well in the future!