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Mental health and wellbeing in a time of COVID-19

Andy Hamilton SJ

During the coronavirus crisis mental health has been a focus of concern. This is not surprising. Our mental health is held within a delicate yet strong web of relationships that we ordinarily take for granted. Our daily routine, our workplace and fellow workers, our employment, our family, our schooling, our church associations, our friends, our celebrations, hobbies, games and level of comfort with our own company, and our secure hold on our future, are only some of the relationships that hold our lives in place.

The coronavirus tore holes in this web. Its restrictions limited close relationships outside our homes and put pressure on those within them, interrupted schooling, pastimes and employment, made distant our intimate communication by touch, and tore away any expectations of a predictable life. It put pressure on our own inner strength and on our domestic relationships. It threatened our mental health.

At one level the response to this threat was a dazzling burst of activity like the springtime green explosion that follows a bushfire. People discovered zoom, shared their inner experiences of restriction, made connections with neighbours, looked out for the elderly, wrote, painted and played music, walked for hours in parks, and lingered for conversation in previously centrifugal families. It was a time for repairing the damaged net and weaving new strands to strengthen and extend it.

As in the bush, however, whereafter fires some trees and shrubs are badly burned and struggle to recover, the coronavirus exacerbated the vulnerability of people who suffer from mental illness and whose web of relationships is already fragile. Those who were already isolated, had few friends or little family support, or suffered from anxiety or depression, could lose their connections. They were at risk of a serious onset of mental illness.

Young people are at particular risk. Many have yet to learn how to survive under such pressure. The demands of social distancing intensifies their isolation. For many, mental illness is only one of many areas of disadvantage in their lives. These might include a chaotic or violent experience of childhood, the experience of school as a place of constant failure, physical illness and lack of access to health services and few supportive friends and acquaintances. The disruption caused by coronavirus ripped gaping holes in the already fragile web that supported their lives.

The community has recognised the threat to mental health posed by COVID-19 and the need for therapists to help those afflicted by it. Just as important is the need of vulnerable young people for skilled adults to walk with them. Jesuit Social Service has tried to provide this. By listening and encouraging creative self-expression the web of relationships is strengthened and resilience is built.

The time of coronavirus is demanding. It can also be an occasion for weaving, patching, strengthening and enlarging the nets that keep people healthy and bind them together. It invites us to include in our own web of relationships people vulnerable to mental illness.