By Dr Irena Kit Phey Ling and Miranda Mulyana
Safe management measures to contain the pandemic is precipitating a potential mental health crisis from long periods of social isolation and loneliness. Individuals should seek professional support to overcome their mental anguish instead of suffering alone.
While COVID-19 has resulted in severe physical health and economic crises in the world today, a serious mental health crisis could be silently underway. This has led the Singapore government to convene a COVID-19 Mental Wellness task force to study the mental health needs of Singaporeans.
Some mental health issues identified in a World Health Organization (WHO) survey of 130 countries included bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear. Unattended, they could trigger mental health conditions or exacerbate existing ones, such as increased use of alcohols and drugs, insomnia and anxiety. Of these issues, social isolation, which Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her team had found to be “twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity”, received the least priority.
As practising psychologists, we found that the pandemic-imposed isolation during the Circuit Breaker had indeed affected individuals at every level of the society, from school-age children stuck at home with their home-based learning to the elderly whose routines were disrupted.
After the Circuit Breaker, we encountered an increasing number of our clients struggling with the impact of social isolation. Some of them were anxious to return to their workplace after months of working from home and interacting with talking heads on screen. Others struggled with the loss of their work communities along with their jobs. Yet, they were probably a mere fraction of all who are struggling mentally.
Many find it far easier to avoid talking about their isolation and loneliness, and instead, focus on other pressing issues on hand. But by evading the source of their pain, they are foregoing the opportunity to learn how to think about, react to and regain control of their lives. Many of them would only grow more discontented, and may eventually become disengaged with the world around them.
It is therefore important to encourage those around us with mental health issues to seek help instead of suffering in silence. On campus, we have two counselling centres for staff and students — the National Institute of Education Wellness Centre and the University Wellbeing Centre. Even if you do not feel comfortable with the idea of working with our Trainee/Professional Psychologists and Counsellors on campus, you could still approach counselling centres run by social service organisations or polyclinics, for subsidised professional mental health services. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of in-person counselling sessions, you could request for online counselling sessions. For example, at the National Institute of Education Wellness Centre, we offer online counselling sessions, and the Singapore government has subscribed to the online counselling portal Wysa, which Singaporeans can access for free via mindline.sg.
As a community, we could reach out to conduct regular phone or text message check-ins on friends and colleagues who are struggling mentally. We could also consider serving the less fortunate by volunteering with social service agencies. As DPM Heng noted in his speech on 21 Dec 2020, “...a great workplace is also a place that inspires and supports its employees to care about others — even in difficult times”. Such activities would serve two purposes. Firstly, we are planting the seeds for social group formation by connecting members of the community with one another; and secondly, we are given a chance to develop a deeper sense of purpose and achievement in our personal lives.
On a personal level, we can reduce the fear and worry by focusing on actionable things that we can control. Since our thoughts drive our behaviours, challenging negative thought patterns and replacing them with productive activities can help us move towards positive goals and outcomes. For job-seeking graduate students, this could mean doing something constructive towards employability, like connecting with former internship or holiday job colleagues and bosses, tapping on networks of friends and family, or seeking career counselling, advice or coaching at the National Institute of Education Wellness Centre or similar centres in other NTU schools, to overcome the sense of isolation and helplessness.
Recovery from the effects of social isolation takes time, understanding and patience. If we could achieve greater public awareness on the impact of isolation on mental health, we could create more social acceptance and readiness to reach out to those in need. With some creativity and resourcefulness, we can contribute to happier, more fulfilled and connected lives during these difficult and disconnected times.
About the authors: Dr Irena Kit Phey Ling and Miranda Mulyana are both Singapore-registered psychologists and former HR practitioners who have provided individual coaching and counselling for more than a decade. Currently, Dr Kit is a senior lecturer at NIE’s Psychology, Child & Human Development Academic Group, and Ms Mulyana is an organisational psychologist and certified job and career coach in private practice.