Lockdown Prescriptions: Mental Wellbeing Part 1 The Beacon in us All
Each morning of late I wait for the flutist. I don’t know what he looks like and the musician may well not be a he at all.Gender is immaterial, it is their playing that is paramount, having become part of the rhythm of my day. A timeless sound, unmistakably Indian: that wistful mixture of melancholic joy.The flutist, as if conjured by a genie of gratitude and sensing the need for solace, walks the tree-lined, petal strewn streets of our neighborhood.
No blossom throwing or pot banging is necessary, not even customary applause. Nevertheless, I transmit my silent prayer of thanks and hope this sublime guerilla instrumentalist knows that the jewel of their playing illuminates our day and lights up that small beacon within us all. I think they do; I think it’s why they play for an unseen audience – a simple gift tossed into the ether, like a blessing. And why am I sharing this vignette with you, dear reader? To highlight the measurable and yet immeasurable. In times of uncertainty and chaos, simple things of infinite and rare beauty help us make sense and move forward, bringing a smile, however fleeting, to grease the workings of our indomitable (or desperate) spirit.
Over the years I have written many times about light and dark. The beacon and the gloom. We seem to be in a tunnel right now. Tunnels have a way in and a way out and we need to keep hold of that. On occasion they have the same entrance as exit, and require us to retrace our steps. With others we need to move through to the end; sometimes fumbling and groping in the darkness, sometimes working towards a clear path ahead. The same may be said with mental health and wellbeing (and indeed Covid).
We shy away from using the phrase mental health and illness. Social and emotional wellbeing is a phrase much in contemporary use. Over 50 years ago the Queen was invited to write a few words to be ‘delivered’ by the pioneering astronauts to possible alien friends, on their Apollo 11 moon landing. She stated that the US space mission would increase ‘the knowledge and wellbeing of mankind’. As a species we travel to outerspace to seek answers to humankind’s wellbeing, and yet half a century on, often fail to look inside ourselves.
Social and emotional wellbeing focuses on feelings and does not automatically take cognitive function into account. Of course emotions are felt as well as processed and the brain fog and memory loss many of us are experiencing during this pandemic may be linked to sensory overload. Our brains cannot compute efficiently. The onslaught of negative emotions is palpable in our communities. Collectively, and as individuals we have felt lonely, bored, angry, grief, depressed, confused, blame, scepticism, mistrust, exhausted, afraid, or simply not ourselves (and everything in between). We react to our emotions. Negative emotions do not automatically connote mental illness, but it makes us feel unbalanced. Thankfully, there are ways negative emotions can be addressed.
As a law student the focus on the cognitive state and crime was very much about intention, the mens rea, the knowledge of wrongdoing as it related to the actus reus, the action or conduct in question. My interest in the mind and how it worked came into sharp focus during a murder trial. I was the youngest and only woman barrister on our legal team. My task was to look through piles of crime scene photos, post-mortem reports and to speak to our client in prison. We explored the possibility of the defendant pleading insanity to mitigate their state of mind. His motive was driven by emotions and the situation he found himself in. But I was 22, 6 months out of law school, what did I know?
Years later, sitting in on psychiatric assessments as part of my doctoral research, I saw firsthand the fragility and power of our mind, and what it can and does do. Having such access was humbling; witnessing the gamut of our human condition at its most raw. With a physical medical condition myself, I was keen to know more about the mind-body connection, that physical health is impacted by mental wellbeing. The reverse is also true and therefore mental wellbeing is something I strive to work at. In truth we all should and not simply when we feel it is out of kilter or needs fixing. We give our cars a maintenance service, so why not our minds?
Mental health only seems to concern us when we feel out of balance. It is trial and error, we may not always get it right, additionally there may be the stumblings and road blocks of life events. Mental wellbeing is not a static state but a work in progress. Admittedly maintaining mental wellbeing and unclouded cognitive function is increasingly difficult at times like this. The adversity with which we are currently faced cannot, and should not, be underplayed. Recognizing that we are facing a monumental life event is key to regaining perspective.
We tend to associate mental health with illness but we don’t automatically correlate physical health with sickness. Mental health, like physical health, changes; it has it’s good periods and it’s not so good. And, much like physical health, it is something to monitor and maintain, not take for granted. Similarly it is not a failing when we get ill, mentally or physically. However, there is still stigma attached to anything to do with the mind. Working closely with people living with mental health conditions I saw such strength and fortitude. It was then that I started to understand more, seeing the spectrum of mental health, its conditions and how people managed day to day in diverse ways.
I referred to the Oscars last week. Anthony Hopkins’ win was a genuine triumph in many ways. An accomplished actor not conventionally handsome or ‘Hollywood’; he has believability and range. The accolade also showcased age and experience, Hopkins, aged 83, being the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor Academy award. The subject matter, the Father-daughter relationship and the backdrop of Alzheimers, shines a light on growing old, carers and mental health, not traditional Oscar fayre, but very much of the moment.
Life events affect mental wellbeing both positively and negatively and there has been a relentless swathe of adverse occurrences on a colossal scale. In recent weeks those have come close to home for so many of us. Tragedies: the death of beloved family members, frantic and sometimes fruitless searches for beds, medication, oxygen, not in news reports but from people in our community – our neighbours, colleagues and friends. Added to that sorrow are a myriad unanswered questions, making loss harder to bear.
Fear takes hold as panic and pandemic seem to go hand in hand. That need not be so. I recently attended a virtual memorial service for a friend’s father and hoped that it provided the family with a degree of closure. A small but essential comfort in these times of darkness. A day later an amazing friend engaged funeral services for a person she had never met. We spoke at length after a morning of coordination. She is Christian and her faith is central. Many friends have said that religion, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist has guided them. Others have said the opposite, that they feel forsaken.
In the coming weeks we will look at mental wellbeing and do so specifically in the context of Covid. How to overcome or at least manage some of our understandable emotional, physical and mental health needs.
If you feel your mental wellbeing is under attack don’t suffer in silence. It is ok to admit it and know that there are many others who feel emotionally vulnerable. We have no frame of reference; a pandemic has not raged like this for a century. And the Spanish Flu appears to be a different demon altogether.
Learning from my children whose resilience astounds me and observing when I am fraught or compromised by sleepless nights or constant planning, helps. Striving to be positive mentally (despite Covid) whilst trying to remain negative physically (due to Covid) my wellbeing strategies are geared towards short term techniques. At present we are living largely day to day, and subscribe to the ‘whatever works’ school of thought. For me that entails focusing my efforts on my family. Occasionally I document the days in words and pictures like the photograph I took this morning of the frangipani in my garden. In Sri Lanka they are known as temple trees, a reminder of what we can awaken in ourselves, that small glowing beacon. It helps maintain a low-key momentum and a rhythm in these seemingly static times. Much like the magic flute and its mystery player who walks our street.
Next time a deeper dive into wellbeing.