You’ve binge-watched your way through your entire Netflix shortlist, you’ve been living in your PJs around the clock and haven’t left the house in days; you’re not sleeping well, are hardly exercising and Friday-night-pizza has become most-nights pizza.
Before COVID, this state of mental wellbeing may have raised red flags of concern among your friends and family. But as we navigate the pandemic with its lockdowns, worry for family and friends, home learning and lack of separation between work and home, have the ‘goal posts’ for mental wellbeing shifted? Is there a new 'normal' when it comes to mental health?
Everybody’s psychological functioning has been affected by the pandemic, says women’s mental health expert Jane Fisher AO, Finkel Professor of Global & Women’s Health at Monash University. “And there’s no doubt that a higher proportion of people are experiencing [disabling] psychological symptoms,” she says.
A recent article in the New York Times discussed a feeling of ‘blah’ that many of us are experiencing, and the state of mind it describes – languishing. The term ‘languishing’ was coined by sociologist Corey Keyes, as a mental no-mans-land experienced by people who weren’t depressed, but who weren’t thriving either.
Pre-COVID, many women were well-versed in the ‘daily juggle’ and carrying the lion’s share of the mental load, but now, not only has the pandemic served up complex new challenges, it’s taken away what soothes and fuels us.
We know that one of the things that maintains our mental wellbeing is interactions with other people – and what women are missing most is the direct interaction with colleagues in the workplace, friends and members of their extended family.”Jane Fisher AO, Finkel Professor of Global & Women’s Health at Monash University
For some, the combination of working from home and home-schooling children has been like trying to mix oil and water. For those in share-houses or living solo, constant home-life presents challenges of its own.
The research finding that 70% of working professionals are describing themselves as exhausted and burned out in the wake of the pandemic is a development that needs our attention, says Dr Sarah Cotton, psychologist and co-director of Transitioning Well, an organisation that helps employers and their employees enhance work-life wellbeing.
With the blurring of work-life boundaries we know that work-life conflict, can have a significant negative impact on our mental health and wellbeing, says Dr Cotton.
“’Availability creep’ [where employees feel obligated to be available all the time to respond to work-related calls and emails or simply to meet their work demands] is one of the major factors that I’m hearing about at the coalface,” she says. “People are working that bit longer, and it is taking a toll.”
Pregnant women, new parents and those wanting to be parents are other groups dealing with new complications in light of COVID, says Arabella Gibson, CEO of perinatal depression and anxiety support organisation, Gidget Foundation Australia.
“In terms of emerging issues, we’re seeing many more unplanned pregnancies, and stress as a result of that,” says Ms Gibson. “Equally, we’re seeing a lot of anxiety from people going through assisted reproductive treatment for fertility issues, because [with COVID restrictions and postponement of treatments] every passing menstrual cycle is another lost opportunity.”
For parents returning home with a newborn, traditional ‘villages of support’ are either absent or altered.
Mothers’ groups, exercise groups for new parents… they might be happening sporadically now, but people are having babies and missing that support.”Arabella Gibson, CEO of Gidget Foundation Australia
This disruption to support services is also having untold impacts on women who care for family members with a disability, making day-to-day life especially difficult. As Prof Fisher explains, “Many of the usual services that would help with that have been closed down. They’re having to provide constant care for someone with often high or special needs”.
And if you think that women in rural and regional Australia have had an easier time, with less severe lockdowns and restrictions, think again. Prof Fisher’s research shows the COVID fallout on levels of mental health problems in rural and regional areas was “very similar to those in urban areas”. To a large extent, the worries of countryfolk were focused on finances, lost work and the complexities of running commercial businesses in a pandemic world – themes Prof Fisher says were echoed by city-based dwellers.
So, as we navigate towards a new normal in a COVID-impacted world, how do we know if we’re coping, or if we need to ask for support in these strange new times?
The main thing to look out for, says Prof Fisher, is if there’s no change or sense of recovery in what you’re feeling. “If for a period of at least two weeks, you only feel really low in mood and nothing much relieves that, then it’s wise to seek some professional help,” she says.
Your GP is a very good option as a first port of call, but one of the constraints of COVID of course, is freedom of movement, says Prof Fisher.
While medical appointments are a permitted reason for people to leave their homes during COVID lockdowns, many people have instead chosen to cancel them, either due to anxiety or mental fatigue, or not realising they are still allowed to attend them.
Teleheath – where appointments are conducted online or over the phone – can often solve this problem, but only in part, as it relies on having a private space at home, stable internet and up-to-date technology – not all of which are available to all women in Australia.
Ms Gibson adds to this, saying that the pandemic has increased a delay in people seeking mental health support; so much so, she coined the term ‘COVID lag’ to describe it. “People are thinking to themselves, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad, I’ve not got it as bad as somebody else. I need to just deal with this and try to cope’.”
In the first four months of 2021, Gidget Foundation Australia – which provides both telehealth and face-to-face appointments to people suffering emotional distress during pregnancy and early parenting – had an increase of 127% in service delivery compared to the first four months of the pandemic last year. “Those parents, who were in lockdown [last year], they’re now seeking help,” she says.
Online resources have been particularly important for people during the pandemic. Prof Fisher highlights the Australian Psychological Society and Beyond Blue websites, which offer information about how to manage increased anxiety or depression, specifically for the age of COVID.
Gidget Foundation Australia also has a wide range of online fact sheets and worksheets for new and expectant parents navigating their way through both the pandemic and their new roles as mum or dad.
For working women, Dr Cotton recommends forgetting about the “mythical work-life balance” – branding it as an ever-elusive end goal, particularly in the present day. Instead, she encourages people to consider their work-life boundaries.
“That’s going to look different for everyone, but what we know is that it’s about conscious choice,” she says. “Thinking through: what are your non-negotiables? What is most important to you and how can you establish boundaries so you can be sustainable in your work and your life.”
Throughout the pandemic, Prof Fisher says that in spite of the immense challenges, it’s important to recognise silver linings even if they are small.
Many are saying that, freed from external commitments and commuting, they are appreciating a slower pace of life, being able to enjoy simpler activities together as a family or household, reading and listening to music, even having time to reflect on life.
“Some have experienced intense loneliness, but for others it’s actually been a time of emotional closeness that people have valued,” she says.
New-found hobbies and new local friendships are also fuelling a sense of hope, helping people to stay the COVID course with activities such as “learning to cook new things, growing things in the garden, forming neighbourhood links that they hadn’t formed before”, says Prof Fisher. “So it’s important to continue that.”
In this complex time, she reminds us that the most powerful tool in finding our new normal is perhaps the most simple and straightforward: kindness.
“When many people are feeling themselves to be more short-tempered and snappier, we know that intentional kindness has a powerful effect,” she says. “Not only on the person receiving [it], but on the person giving it”.
It could come in the form of intentionally expressing appreciation, offering help to others, as well as “intentionally saying things in a polite and kind way rather than with irritability”.
Echoing this, Dr Cotton says to not overlook ourselves in the process. “As women, we’re often the first to put the kettle on for a friend, or put our arms around a family member [but we don’t do the same for ourselves],” she says.
They say that compassion is incomplete if it doesn’t include self-compassion.”Dr Sarah Cotton, psychologist and co-director of Transitioning Well