This year has certainly been one to remember for all the wrong reasons. As a collective experience generations will remember this time for years to come. Whether we look back fondly or absolutely the opposite, we may neglect to consider the long term effects of the pandemic on our mental health.
We’ve gone from being fully restricted to the outside world, to being allowed out, and then told to get back inside. The endless update of restrictions has yet to tell us when it will be safe to come out and see our friends and family again.
On July 18th in the Buenos Aires Times Dr. Maureen Birmingham, the WHO/PAHO representative for Argentina was quoted saying “In addition, in all countries, mental health services and psychosocial support must be scaled up due to socio-economic damage, the psychosocial effects of the pandemic and quarantine, and the drama that many people lived dealing with this virus.”
What does that mean for Buenos Aires whose residents are still privy to heavy restrictions? I spoke with two local psychologists Carolina Bianco (Psychologist & UX Researcher) & Omar López (Psychologist / Psychodramatist) to discuss the lockdown and its implications for the present & future of mental health in the city. With the following suggestions, we hope you’ll take care of yourself and your mental well being.
What trends have you seen during the lockdown with regard to mental health?
OL: Isolation has resulted in a significant increase in anxiety in most of the people I serve online. Although anxiety is the great public health problem in every big city, not only in Argentina, in situations like these, anxiety turns into violent behaviors (gender violence, domestic violence) or depressive states that could even lead to suicide.
CB: Several studies were done on the effects of quarantine on mental health, and there is more anxiety, more depression. A global disaster like the pandemic causes us to put defense mechanisms like denial into play. The possibility of contagion and death, uncertainty about the future, arbitrariness, lead us to defend ourselves by denying the situation, denying its seriousness, denying the anguish it generates in us. We begin to want to convince ourselves that it is not so serious. I think that all of us deny to some extent to be able to move on and there are also those who take it to an extreme by denying the existence of the virus directly.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge during and after the quarantine ends?
OL: For me, it is not a challenge what we have ahead as mental health workers, on the contrary, it seems that the result of the pandemic has brought people to approach a psychologist or a therapist who in other circumstances would not have done so. Our work has been greatly destigmatized. But on the other hand, I do believe that this as a whole, has to help us unite and demand from this and all the governments of the world the need to incorporate psychologists, occupational therapists, therapeutic companions, school integrators, and the like to be recognized and grant us the spaces and resources needed to help the mental health of an excessively anxious world. It was not only [medical] doctors who were necessary in all this.
CB: The problem begins when the message that reaches us from all sides is that we have to sustain our life as if nothing had happened. The problem begins when uncertainty and the unknown distress us and we cover it up, when we do not allow ourselves to accept that we are not well and that things are not normal.
What advice would you give to people currently undergoing mental health challenges?
OL: The biggest invitation I can extend to people in general in this situation is to stop and answer the question: What am I feeling?
Being able to give a word to what we are going through internally is a good initiator to get rid of anxiety and take charge of our responsibilities in the exercise of each of the social roles that make us up. Father, mother, daughter, grandmother, aunt, brother, student, worker, housewife, lawyer, architect, until we get to the most basic one that most of the time we forget, which is citizen of the world. It is not bad to feel angry, sad, surprised, fearful, or any other emotion that is not necessarily happiness. Wanting to achieve the utopia of eternal happiness in life is not a recognition of the very act of being “Alive.”
CB: It seems important to me to realize that everyone does what they can. The same situation affects each person differently, each person lost something different during the pandemic and there are no right or wrong ways to deal with it. And judging ourselves or others by our ability or limitations to deal with an unforeseen catastrophe only adds one more concern at a time when worries abound.
What steps do you think people can take to maintain their mental health in the future?
OL: It is not about making sense of life from where it MUST be lived. I believe that today more than ever as individuals, as a family, community, town or city, country, continent, and world, we must seek the path that leads us to make sense of how we WANT to live.
There is no recipe that we can buy in the bakery just like there is no straightforward guide on knowing how to live, but if we can begin to ask ourselves how we want to do it, we need to stop and go inside.
CB: We fantasize about the return to normality and about the positive changes that we are going to see in the world, but the truth is that there is no possible return, things will not be as they were because you can never return to what was. Things will somehow be rearranged and surely there will be an opportunity to improve, to learn, and to build something better, but I don’t think now is the time to pretend to have answers, to demand that we have gained wisdom. At least not all of us are in a position to do so. Let’s give ourselves time.
Overcoming the Challenges in a Post-Quarantine Buenos Aires
Give Yourself Space
It was hard enough for us to remain in our homes for this indefinite amount of time, but leaving the bubble can feel like a completely overwhelming experience as well.
The main thing to remember is you shouldn’t feel pressured into feeling like you have to go from total solitary to immediately being this exuberant social butterfly. Allow yourself some adjustment time.
At first the sensory overload may exhaust you, so let yourself build a new routine gradually. Just like going to the gym, there is no point going 150% on the workout if you’re just going to be unable to continue for the rest of the week.
Don’t Let Others Dictate Your feelings
Although some of us are keeping our ear to the wall desperately awaiting that final announcement that we’re allowed out, there will be some who will still be wary to leave the safety net of their home. That is perfectly fine too. We need to ensure we respect each other and don’t make others feel insecure or unjustified in their concerns. This is a new experience for many of us and we’re all trying to navigate through it in our own unique way.
Give yourself the time you need to recharge between socialization and taking care of your mental and physical well being. The quarantine has emphasized taking more responsibility to ensure that we are making the effort to relax by partaking in a hobby, reading a book, or just meditating. This shouldn’t change once the gates are opened because this is going to be the most crucial time to take advantage of this time to reconnect with your own well-being.
This may be your first time seeking professional help, so don’t worry. There are fantastic psychologists and counselors based in Buenos Aires who are ready to help you work through your challenges and you can find those here.
Although it may be daunting, you should also never feel like you can’t speak with your friends and family about any mental health challenges you encounter. You might be surprised to learn that they too are sharing similar feelings. Sometimes talking openly and honestly can be just as therapeutic for them as it is for you. And if it’s not, then go to the professionals who are trained to help.