Mental health amid these times

A student of mine from Gokhale Institute sent me this email (lightly edited for clarity):

Hello Sir,

I just watched your videos related to Coronavirus.

They are great and helpful, somehow they leave the viewer feeling a bit optimistic.

However, I’d also suggest you to (I’m not sure if it’s actually needed or it’s something which you haven’t talked about implicitly) talk about the psychological drainage that this situation is creating. This situation actually looks like a flickering bulb, a very scary prospect indeed.

Amidst all this, people are panicking some loudly like my mother and some internally like me. And, it looks like a weird situation.

I mean I presume that even if we control the virus just like China has flattened its curve, we can only rest if the last case is eliminated of the virus which is closer to an impossibility. Sorry for sounding pessimistic but that’s how my mind is working at the  moment.

I also am allowing myself to think that maybe the virus will spread everywhere and act like an elimination round. It sounds brutal but looks like a possibility and the prospect of that happening does make me sad. I think humans will have to naturally cope up with this phenomenon and artificial measures would only aim at minimizing misery but do we actually look like we stand a chance at minimizing this loss?

What’s your take on the mentally distorting effects of the virus? Because, it’s not even slow poison it looks like an apocalyptic situation right now. And, if you could give some sense of hope to people like me – viewers and readers of your works.

Regards
Ayushi Baloni
Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics

It’s a question that other people will also have, I’m guessing, which is why the reply is here, rather than directly to Ayushi.

This is from Nature Asia:

A mental health institute at the Second Xiangya Hospital in Hunan, China followed a protocol for ensuring the quality of life of those in isolation. The steps were simple – daily digital communication with their closed ones, group counselling, catering to individual dietary needs, comfort and leisure, continuation of job-related activities and updates on the outbreak condition. Weekly supportive psychotherapy sessions and periodic hygienic measures were ensured for healthy living. These helped preserve the dignity of those in isolation and their compliance to restrictive protocols. In the absence of such care giving, we often see people defy isolation or abscond for the fear of getting ‘stranded’, which is a larger menace to public health.

Setting up a goal for yourself: creating a list of tasks which should be completed has been helpful for some folks, myself included. That, along with making sure that I call at least one friend on a daily basis, usually more.

But speaking of tasks, as my friend Girish says here, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t complete the task. Half the fun is in drawing up the list! Read the rest of the post as well: great advice in there.

Do not be overly self-critical or disappointed if you make a list of things you can achieve in lockdown and end up completing none. Making lists is a soothing exercise and our mind’s way of trying to make sense and seek order in the surrounding chaos. We are also in the initial phases of the isolation so the need to change our habits and tackle self-improvement lists will not kick in without enormous struggle and discipline. The longer our lives are affected by the virus, the better the chances we’ll actually get around to the simple full-body workout, the basic cooking hacks, cleaning up behind the fridge or heck, showering every day.

The WHO has a video up about this issue as well:

Some advice from the NYT:

When he feels anxiety seep in, Dr. Hanson, who creates guided meditations for the digital platform Simple Habit, said he takes a few slow, deep breaths and reminds himself of what is true in this exact moment. Then he takes stock, telling himself, “In this moment, your heart is beating. You’re breathing in this moment. No saber-tooth tiger is coming after you in this moment.”

“Our fear is about the future. It’s what we anticipate,” he said. “But if you stop and say, ‘I am healthy in this moment,’ it pulls you out of rumination and anxious, helpless preoccupation. Your brain will come to this moment of quiet realization. ‘Things are not great, but they’re basically OK. I am still surviving.’ It gives you more of a sense of agency.”

Calm is an app available on both Android and iOS, designed to help you meditate, and headspace is another. There are plenty more, of course – no reason for you to stick to just these two! Tara Brach has guided meditations that are free, if that helps. Feel free to add more sources in the comments below, of course. Help others!

Speaking of helping others, I cannot recommend this strongly enough. Become a mentor to somebody. Teach a kid the alphabet, teach somebody how to cook, teach somebody something that you are good at. Personally, I find this very helpful indeed.

Read this, from BrainPickings – and read as much as you can of BrainPickings!

Hope — and the wise, effective action that can spring from it — is the counterweight to the heavy sense of our own fragility. It is a continual negotiation between optimism and despair, a continual negation of cynicism and naïveté. We hope precisely because we are aware that terrible outcomes are always possible and often probable, but that the choices we make can impact the outcomes.

Who can you follow on Twitter?

My recommendations would be Dr. Bhooshan Shukla, and Dr. Soumitra Pathare. I’m sure there are others, please provide references in the comments, or email me. I’ll update this post.

India Today says switching off is important:

According to author and mental health advocate Shuchi Singh, it is important that one does not give in to the hysteria that may be created by constant updates about the disease.

“The panic around novel coronavirus is primarily because of the bombardment of news everywhere, you can’t escape it. You don’t need to stay in touch constantly, need to know what’s a good balance between staying connected and not. You should follow precautions in your own way,” she says.

And finally, The Guardian channels its inner Douglas Adams, and tells us not to panic:

Yes, this virus is obviously a massive challenge: medical, political and – perhaps most strikingly at present – social and economic. But it is worth remembering the world has never had better tools to fight it, and that if we are infected, we are unlikely to die from it.

Thanks for reading, and please keep your questions coming!

Ayushi, thank you for your question! 🙂

Links for 7th May, 2019

  1. “Cyclone Fani slammed into Odisha on Friday morning with the force of a major hurricane, packing 120 mile per hour winds. Trees were ripped from the ground and many coastal shacks smashed. It could have been catastrophic.

    But as of early Saturday, mass casualties seemed to have been averted. While the full extent of the destruction remained unclear, only a few deaths had been reported, in what appeared to be an early-warning success story.”
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    A short read from the NYT about how Odisha was rather more prepared this time around for Cyclone Fani. Makes for encouraging, happy reading!
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  2. “Perhaps the earth has life because it came from other solar systems, seeded by alien probes, and indeed that is what I would do if I were a very wealthy alien philanthropist. If you end up with 100 successfully seeded solar systems for each very advanced civilization, the resulting odds suggest that we are indeed the result of a seed.That’s partly why, to this observer, the most likely resolution of the Fermi paradox is this: The aliens have indeed arrived, through panspermia — and we are they.”
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    An equally short, equally interesting take on aliens and the Fermi paradox from Tyler Cowen.
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  3. “We Are Pro-Technology, but only as a means, not an end. Technology is only as good as our understanding of it, and an incremental approach will save more lives in the near and long term while mitigating the second order consequences of an all-or-nothing approach.”
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    I was sent this by Aadisht Khanna, and while I do not necessarily agree with all of it, it does raise some fairly interesting points – and the manifesto itself is certainly food for thought.
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  4. “This looks quite tough, and there’s a significant chance the company will be valued at less than the debt itself, even if there was a buyer. After all if a buyer is paying that much money, why doesn’t he just start a new airline (or acquire a significant stake in an existing airline) and take over whatever slots, planes and rights Jet had? That’s likely to be much cheaper.”
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    Deepak Shenoy ponders the question of Jet Airways unusually high share price, and is unable to resolve the paradox.
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  5. “Without going too far down this rabbit hole, the following is worth noting: What sport psychologists, coaches, parents and players are prescribing as a model of mental toughness is equally likely to be the success-producing traits of highly successful and highly functional psychopaths. I have worked with a few psychopaths. I’ve seen the so-called attributes of mental toughness in them, which help deliver results on the field. I have seen how fans, friends and the media adore these people. But I have also seen what it looks like when their mental toughness is unmasked as psychopathic behaviour. They come across as being narcissistic and entirely self-serving, compulsive (and clever) liars, manipulators without any remorse and an inability to take responsibility for their errors. These are not qualities we should encourage as general conditions for performance.”
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    A fascinating article in Cricinfo about mental toughness, and how it doesn’t really exist – at least, not the way you think it does.

Links for 8th April, 2019

  1. “The message of the chart, after all, is the same in both versions. But the takeaway is important: if two series follow each other too closely, it is probably a good idea to have a closer look at the scales.”
    A lovely, lovely read on how even The Economist (gasp!) sometimes gets visualizations wrong. But jokes aside, it is a lovely read on how difficult data visualization is.
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  2. “What I am angry about is our underinvestment in figuring out how to better treat mental health problems. Even with all of the other suffering there is in the world, I believe that suffering from mental health problems is a large part of human suffering. Without referencing his own suffering, Alan did a lot to advance the recognition of the importance of mental health problems—and more broadly, the importance of everything that contributes to a good life—with his research on subjective well-being.”
    Miles Kimball, who was a peer of Alan Krueger’s at Harvard, writes a lovely essay about him, and more besides. Entirely worth a read.
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  3. “Grief is a gift, wrapped in the worst possible package. It shows you who you are, and teaches you lessons you would never have learned otherwise. Your compassion for others is magnified. Your understanding of what motivates people sharpens. You are grateful for small wonders and embrace happy moments as never before, because you know—you are absolutely clear about this—that you must celebrate when you can and while you can. Grief has taught you not to take these moments for granted. You become an open invitation for wonder.”
    I rarely do this, but on this one occasion, it makes sense. From within the essay in 2. above, this essay by Miles Kimball’s wife, Gail. Please make the time to to read it.
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  4. “While studying some of the oldest art in the world found in caves and engraved on animal bones or shells, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has found evidence of a proto-writing system that perhaps developed in Africa and then spread throughout the world.”
    Suggestive or not, accurate or not – it certainly makes for fascinating reading. The chart alone is worth the click. An article about whether there may be a common ancestry to symbols found the world over.
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  5. “Indian fiscal federalism is at a crossroads. The question of how money is to be shared between New Delhi and the states on one hand, and among different states on the other, will continue to resonate. There is a lot of talk about the importance of federalism as well as calls for greater centralization. Decentralization is needed because India is too complex a country to have a uniform approach to development. Centralization is necessary because of the risk that important national public goods, including regional equality, could be underfunded. These tricky questions of federal balance need an institutional mechanism that entails either a more effective NITI Aayog or a permanent Finance Commission.”
    Niranjan Rajadhakshya weighs in on what should replace the NITI Aayog and the Planning Commission,