COVID-19: Isolation Has Taken its Toll

Posted on May 22, 2020

With a focus on mental health, the PRA team wanted to share their personal experience with COVID-19 – the ups, downs and in-betweens.

COVID-19 isolation has taken its toll.
My mental health decline snuck up on me.

Robert Simpson, President and CEO, PR Associates   

This morning, while chasing squirrels off the front lawn in my bath robe, it suddenly struck me that I had turned into that person—the unhinged man on the block parents warn their kids about.

It hasn’t always been this way. Pre COVID-19 isolation, I was an average guy who had a great appreciation for a squirrel’s work ethic.

So what changed? How did the squirrels go from admirably industrious to dirty tree rats digging holes in my lawn? More importantly, how did I become the raging lunatic wearing a loosely cinched bath robe running down the street waving a broom threating them?

The answer is simple. It’s my family’s fault.

I grew up in the 1960 and 70’s with an Anglo-Saxon Scottish family, where we were taught at a very young age to “keep a stiff upper lip.” Translation–an expression of emotion is a weakness and the only acceptable reaction to adversity is fortitude and stoicism.

In our family we never talked about mental health – it was a taboo subject. The closest I ever came to a real mental health conversation was with my grandmother when I cried after my parents dropped me off for the weekend and she responded by saying it was “okay to cry because we all feel a little crazy now and then.”

In my family, if you showed any sign of depression or anxiety the cure was more fresh air and sunshine.  If air and sunlight didn’t solve the problem, the way to change your ‘attitude’ was to make you work harder “an idle mind is the devil’s playground.”

And if a few days of sweat and toil didn’t snap you out of your glum, the ultimate threat was that you would be sent to live with the dishevelled man at the end of the block who chased neighbourhood kids down the street with a broom.

Today, after flashing my neighbours in my bath robe, it struck me. I’ve become that guy. I haven’t showered in a couple of days, my hair looks like Einstein and I have peanut butter stains on the front of my bath robe from last week. So how did I go from a quiet, reasonable guy to one waving a broom at the smug squirrels laughing at me from the safety of their perch in a maple tree? Clearly, the stiff upper lip approach isn’t working anymore.

I’ve been anxious, irritable and in need of a good night’s sleep for some time now, and it is time to admit my mental health is in decline. The isolation, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, is taking its toll.

I need to start taking my mental health seriously—something I probably would not have thought about if my article wasn’t due today for the series our team, at PR Associates, is writing for Mental Health Month about how we are coping with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I learned after a quick Google search that I am not alone in the way I’m feeling. A recent international survey on global mental health by Qualtrics showed that 67% of people surveyed report higher levels of stress since the outbreak of COVID-19 while 57% say they have greater anxiety since the outbreak, 54% say they are more emotionally exhausted, 53% say they feel sadness day-to-day, 50% feel they are more irritable and 42% report their overall mental health has declined.

So, what does this report prove other than there is likely a lot of other people running down the street in un-cinched bath robes?  According to the authors, it means that if we don’t recognize the signs of our declining mental heath and start nurturing ourselves, we are going to have a global mental health crisis on our hands post COVID-19.

After reading the report, I paused to think about the importance of mental health. This snuck up on me. Like it probably has on a lot of people. The pandemic created a perfect storm for my mental health crisis. The stress of a life threatening health risk along with the economic challenges, confinement and uncertainty about the future is enough to make everyone feel a little off kilter.

What’s my plan for nurturing my mental health?  According to the creditable literature, the key to preventing a downward spiral is to recognize the signs of mental decline. So today’s incident was my eureka moment.

For me, preserving my mental health starts with recognizing that I’m grieving, mourning the loss of life as I knew it. The things I value and build identity around–dinners with friends, Friday after-work drinks with colleagues, travel and my frequent trips to the hardware store on the weekends—all have been wiped out overnight. So, the first place for me to start is to recognize the grief and allow myself to feel the emotions—the sense of loss, sorrow and anger. Maybe I’ll even start writing a journal.

Next, I’ve realized the bi-product of my social distancing is I don’t have the natural triggers to bring me into an emotional space with those that I care about. I have become emotionally distanced from the people around me and becoming more and more isolated. As an introvert, I thought this alone time would be energising and refreshing but after almost nine weeks of isolation – it’s not. I’m more the guy shouting at the television, annoyed by the stupidity of humanity than an invigorated creative pounding out the next Nobel prize in literature. So now, I’ve made it my mission to watch less television and break this isolation cycle by reaching out to more friends and family to get out of this state of funk.

And finally, I’m going to get out of bed early every morning, have a shower, get dressed and start following my normal self-care routine again. Not leaving the house coupled with feeling discouraged or helpless by the events going on around me, it’s been easy to let this go. At least now the man chasing squirrels off his front lawn will have his hair combed, face washed and be wearing pants.

At PR Associates, there is no learning curve because health and science communication is all we do. As experts and seamless extensions of your team, we use science storytelling to clarify complexity, capture imaginations, shift mindsets, and stimulate investment interest.

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