The latest episode of #DearWorldLive focuses on preserving mental well-being as pandemic continues to grip the world

Safeguarding jobs, providing the public with clear governmental guidance, and avoiding the use of the phrase ‘social distancing’ have been marked as key to avoiding people’s mental health plummeting across the world amidst COVID-19.  

Coping With The Crisis: Mental Health and COVID-19 – the theme of the latest edition of the Doha Debates #DearWorldLive series – saw a University of Oxford academic, whose work focuses on well-being, warn that after a period of early resilience, people’s mental state may now be starting to decline with no end to the pandemic in sight.

Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, an economics professor who has won accolades for his contributions to the scientific study of happiness, said that in the first month following the lockdown, people adapted and were resilient.

 However, the latest data shows we are now at an inflection point where we are muddling through, and there are the first signs of things pointing downward again, partially driven by people being fed up. I think that’s because people are now coming to terms with the idea (that) this is not going to be a V-shaped recovery where we sprint back to the old normal.

He said that people are fearful about what will happen in the next few months and governments are not being clear on this. This raises uncertainty and psychological instability, and there is a general decrease in mental health and well-being.

#DearWorldLive 1According to Dr De Neve, the importance of retaining jobs ‘cannot be stressed enough’, as he said that it’s not just the income loss that matters when people are being made redundant – it’s the loss of routine, self-esteem and social identity, and the social network of a work environment.

We also need to change the wording and start to say ‘physical distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing’. The notion of ‘social distancing’, from a mental health and well-being perspective, could not be more poorly chosen. In times of crisis, we have to rely on the quality of our social relationships and social capital, re-appreciate them, and reinvest in them.

The #DearWorldLive discussion – moderated by Nelufar Hedayat – also included psychiatrist, writer, filmmaker, and entrepreneur Dr Kamran Ahmed, who specialises in treating mental issues. He told the show that he has seen patients who are ‘severely anxious about catching the virus’, struggling with losing jobs and businesses, and grieving for loved ones.

In psychiatry, there is the idea of defence mechanism – unconscious ways of dealing with difficulty – and they include creativity and altruism. People are inclined to help others as a way of helping themselves through this.

But he said that the challenges of being alone in lockdown are significant. People struggle with negative thoughts, especially if they have a very loud ‘inner critic’ – the voice in the head that puts a person down for no apparent reason. He is encouraging people to take the opportunity to challenge that inner critic and test what it is telling you.

He said that we should also keep following the health advice we are given, because doing things that we know will protect us will make us feel better. We should also limit the amount of information we consume about COVID-19 because it can become overwhelming. And it’s important not to be hard on yourself – if you are feeling anxious or worried you are not being productive, it’s okay because this is a difficult time.

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Emmy Award-winning writer and speaker Suleika Jaouad, a cancer survivor, told #DearWorldLive that we need to recognise how the imprints of an experience like a global pandemic will remain long after the crisis is over.

She said that it’s important to focus on acts we can do beyond our own lives, in the service of others, and take precautions to protect our mental and emotional well-being just as we take precautions. The temptation is to focus on physical illness without also focusing on the more holistic impact of this pandemic.

Dana Al Ali, a fourth-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, said people should look at this as a time for self-learning and self-growth.

We should try to take this time to learn more about ourselves and reflect on what we have seen to become stronger. We call it post-traumatic growth, which is a form of connectiveness and togetherness. There are no sides in this pandemic – we are all on the same side, battling the same thing.

#DearWorldLive is aired every Tuesday, 3 pm (Doha time) on the Doha Debates social media pages – Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Each episode focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on our lives and the world. For more information, visit their website at dohadebates.com.