In conversation with Ms. Anita Krishnan Shankar, a mental health practitioner at Alliance Counselling, Singapore, shares her views and expert opinion on the importance of mental health especially during a pandemic. She explains how to overcome the stigma associated with mental health and suggests a mental health regime and tips to improve overall mental wellbeing.
Almost two years now since the Covid-19 outbreak, our lives have changed dramatically in ways we never imagined. Physical spaces have clearly defined boundary lines, personal interactions and socialising are severely restricted, face coverings and handwashing is the norm, work from home or from hotel rooms with minimal scope for other enriching experiences has become a routine.
These new ways of survival take a toll on the physical and mental health of every feeling human hiding away from a deadly virus out there. While we are mostly educated to flex our muscles and stretch our bodies to maintain agility and a good physique, we often fall short of understanding mental health and it’s importance in our overall well-being.
The Importance of Mental Health
“We need to take care of our mental health as much as our physical health as our minds and bodies are completely interlinked,” says Ms. Anita Shankar, a mental health practitioner at Alliance Counselling Singapore. “In fact it would be very difficult to separate the two - poor physical health can contribute to poor mental health and vice versa. Therefore in order to live a fulfilling and balanced life we need both good mental and physical health,” she adds.
“Mental health is a very broad and generic term that essentially refers to our ability to live our best life, and to be resilient and cope with stress, uncertainty and adversity. It is about how we use our innate tools and resources, to manage our thoughts, feelings and behaviours particularly when we are faced with challenges. Research has shown us that good mental health is associated with the willingness to learn and change, and the ability to maintain positive social and interpersonal relationships,” she explains.
Lack of Awareness and Stigma Around Mental Health
Even though mental health is as important as physical health, it is often less-discussed among peer groups, families and in society. We are bombarded with advertisements and sales pitches of physical training businesses on how having a chiseled physique is critical to leading a satisfying and successful life. However, mental health promoters do not seem to match up to their counterparts or rather their voices are submerged in the noise of billion dollar body building marketing campaigns.
Ms. Shankar says, “there is certainly far greater awareness of mental health today than there was in the past, however we need to generate a lot more awareness. Sadly poor mental health continues to be stigmatised in many cultures, primarily because of a lack of understanding. Stereotypes about people with poor mental health continue to perpetuate. These in turn impact people struggling with their mental health adversely.”
“Mental health is not openly discussed because there is a lot of fear, shame and judgement around it. We find it difficult to accept that there may be times in life when we need help with our mental health. We therefore tend to minimize symptoms or red flags. If we could normalize mental health conditions, educate people about it and say it’s okay to have mental health challenges, then, those who are struggling with their mental health will be more likely to come forward and ask for help when they need it,” she adds.
However, she believes that one way to normalize mental health is to talk about it and share personal stories so that it is seen as something that can happen to anyone. Recently, more celebrities have come forward to voice their mental health concerns in public without the fear of being stigmatised. Naomi Osaka, a Japanese tennis star, was in the news lately when she refused to attend press conferences and withdrew from the French Open citing mental health issues. Her confession - admitting her vulnerabilities - was touted as an incredibly brave move by the public.
“When celebrities are open about their own struggles they are helping to de-stigmatize mental health conditions. Celebrities who are seen as role models and leaders have a bigger voice and can therefore have a greater impact on society and help effect change,” Ms. Shankar opines.
Impact of Covid-19 on Mental Health
There has been an increase in mental health issues since the pandemic has forced us to adopt a new and uncertain lifestyle. A recent report by Qualtrics states the prolonged impact of Covid-19 required work from home has an adverse effect on employee mental health - about 41.6% of respondents reported a mental health decline since the pandemic outbreak.
Ms. Shankar states a few reasons for it. They are:
- Primarily, we are missing the social connection and a sense of belonging that we all need. Working from home can be isolating, as seeing people on a computer screen is not as gratifying and cannot replace face-to-face interaction.
- On-screen interactions also mean that we are missing all the non-verbal cues that make up an essential part of communication. We are also generally drawn to looking at ourselves on screen which is both exhausting and confusing, as in face-to-face interactions we wholly focus on the other person or people that we are communicating with.
- We are also not wired to be sitting in front of a screen all day. We are meant to experience different sensory stimuli. This has become challenging with working from home.
- It has also become more difficult to separate our home lives from our working lives as they are now enmeshed and so disconnecting from work when working from home becomes much harder. Navigating the different roles we play in our lives becomes tricky, when there is no clear demarcation within the physical environment.
- Some of us may also be struggling with the idea of having to constantly share personal space with our family members. Physical space may be limited or not conducive to working from home.
All of these factors have added a great deal of stress to those who are working from home.
“Finally the uncertainty of it all is overwhelming. There are so many unknown variables in this pandemic, and this makes it harder to be resilient. However, what we also know is that the neuroplasticity of the brain will enable us to learn how to change and adapt to this uncertainty, with time and effort,” she adds.
Mental Fitness Regime
Enough has been said about the importance of mental health. We must realise that as much as physical fitness it is imperative to have a metal fitness regime incorporated in our daily lives. We must make a concerted effort to achieve it by setting aside some valuable time.
According to Ms. Shankar, it is really important for all of us to take care of our mental health particularly during a pandemic. She suggests a few ways to keep your mental health in check.
- The first thing we need to do is pay attention to sleep, exercise, and food. Ideally one should have a good routine and plan for all three.
- Next we need to make sure that our life is balanced. Essentially we shouldn’t be doing too much of one thing. It is helpful to look at your life as a pie and see how much of that pie you are allocating to the different areas of your life. If your pie does not look balanced then you need to restore that balance.
- We need to make time for social connection in any capacity.
- We also need to make space in our life for fun, learning, spiritual growth, giving back, or anything else that makes us feel fulfilled.
- Finally, we need to be able to identify red flags that tell us that we are struggling to cope, and get the help that we need.
Mental Health of Children During a Pandemic
Children are a sensitive group we need to pay attention to, especially during a pandemic. They have limited access to social activities and opportunities to mingle with friends.
“We do need to pay attention to our children’s needs and make sure they are being met during the pandemic. As parents we can do this by role modelling and a little creativity. Here are some things that we can try to do,” Ms. Shankar suggests:
- Spending as much time with them as possible
- Creating a new routine with the inputs of the children
- Making sure they get adequate physical activity even if that is within the home
- Providing opportunities for children to connect with friends as far as possible given prevailing restrictions
- Monitoring screen time and ensuring they get breaks from their electronic devices
- Finally reassuring them by taking care of our own mental and physical health, and role modelling resilience in how we respond to the pandemic.
Clean Home Improves Mental Health
Our environment at home is particularly of importance, now that the default mode for most people is to work from home. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that clean and organized homes contribute to good mental health.
“It can improve our ability to focus, lift our mood and promote sleep. It will also make it easier for us to sustain working from home if our home is uncluttered, clean and well organised. A great way to soothe ourselves particularly when we are feeling low is through our five senses, and we can find many ways to do this within our home. For example by cleaning and making our homes visually appealing, lighting a candle, or having different textures that feel calming,” Ms. Shankar concludes.
Ms. Anita Krishnan Shankar is a mental health practitioner with over 15 years of experience in counselling, therapy and education. She works with teenagers, adults and couples. She generally uses a collaborative and client-centred approach in her work, and pairs that with a blended framework of different modalities. Her interests lie in the significance of culture on mental health, as well as adolescent and male mental health. She is a member of the British Psychological Society, the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association and The Australian Counselling Association. For professional therapy and counselling support, you may book an appointment with her via Alliance Counselling, Singapore.
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