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The COVID-19 trade-off: Physical health or mental health?

Kuhoo Tiwari & Esha Gupta

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”

-- CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

A survey conducted by Pew Research Centre shows that gen Z, which is to say, the current youth, is more likely to worry about mental health problems such as stress, and anxiety and depressive disorders than the previous generations. Of 920 American students surveyed, 70% labelled mental health issues as a major concern. Research by the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders (NIMH), states that 26% of American adults suffer from diagnosable mental health disorders, and 9.5% from depressive disorders, alone.

While mental health disorders have been most often ignored, dismissed and even belittled in the past, with the youth being labelled as “lazy,” “stupid” or “not hardworking” for not being able to conform with social and academic societal expectations, this institutionalised notion is seeing a shift since millennials started a conversations surrounding it. The youth today is seen to be more forthcoming about their mental health issues, and more likely to seek help for the same. While this is also to blame on the fact that mental illnesses were simply not considered as the cause of any problems or behavioral traits in the olden days, the new generations have shown tendencies to be more ‘messed up’ in the brain, with only 45% of Gen Z’s claiming to have excellent mental health, and 91% of generation Z adults affirming anxious and depressive symptoms related to stress. In addition, the conversation around mental health has never been as vibrant as it is in this day and age. Having always been considered a taboo, it is only recently that the shroud of shame has started to lift off of this conversation, even though there is still a long way to go. Gen Z, however, has been instrumental in continuing this conversation about mental health that the millennial generation kick -started.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, most countries imposed a lockdown in March, foreseeing the spread of the virus and hence, employing measures to sever pathways of transmission. While the lockdown has benefitted some populations by protecting their physical health, a clear problem has come to the forefront - not enough attention has been paid to mental health repercussions. While all of society is grappling with these consequences, the youth has been impacted more gravely than most.

One of the major drawbacks of this global lockdown in relation to mental health is the social distancing and isolation that individuals have to adhere to which can leave them feeling hopeless and/or helpless and can take a very serious toll on their mind. It not only puts people at risk for developing depression but those already diagnosed can see their illness be exacerbated due to this time. The complete uncertainty plaguing the pandemic and the fear of this unknown, fatal virus has also led to mass anxiety and paranoia amongst the public. This situation is not helped by the fact that we are overloaded with information, often not verified, and it has become increasingly tough for the youth to digest and make sense of the news. This excessive exposure to negative news, uncertainty of what the next academic year holds, financial instability and the overarching fear of being infected or perhaps, infecting someone else has led to anxiety and stress levels seeing a sharp spike.

Another unique problem that this pandemic has underscored is a phenomenon called ‘productivity guilt.’ As more and more people have been confined within their homes, the need to “be productive” within this period has skyrocketed. In a rat race to achieve as much as you possibly can, even though the times are so uncertain, a lot of individuals are being left behind. This has led to a sense of failure in some and has seen some others push themselves so hard that their mental health has taken a backseat. Gen Z, or the “online generation,” are considered to be more anxious and depressed with the increased use of technology, and the number of hours spent online (10.6 hours daily, on an average, as per research by Adobe, UK.), as it is. Their competition and scope of comparison has increased hundred fold; their ability to share (and thus, see) the result of creativity and productivity can be done in four small clicks, procrastination has never been easier (and more draining) than it is for Gen Z. All of this only contributes to the increased likeliness of the aforementioned “productivity guilt,” where not only do they have to suffer the self-deprecating thoughts of not being productive enough, but they’re also forced to drown in stories, posts and messages of others seeing results.

So with the odds stacked so high against us, where do we go from here? How do we take care of ourselves during not only this time but also the uncertainty that follows after?

It is important to give yourself time to heal and build resilience. We are facing collective trauma that runs deep and there are no clear solutions on where we go from here. It becomes pertinent in such a situation to know what type of news and information to consume and how to regulate the flow of it. A lot is slowly changing and the world is starting to get back on its feet again, but we do have a long way to go. Taking it a day at a time might prove helpful to most because the future may not be as extreme and uncertain as we fear. To populations privileged enough to access it, online resources including psychotherapy are being made available at a low cost or even completely free at times. A lot of civil society organizations are also working at the grassroots level to make sure aid is available wherever needed. As for the productivity guilt, it becomes important that you maintain a schedule and employ positive affirmations. It’s essential to remember that this is far from a race, it’s a global pandemic and stopping to take a break or two, is not only forgivable, it's advisable.

The world as we know it is changing but, what needs to remain steadfast is our knowledge and belief that mental health is just as important as physical health. This cliche has never been more pertinent especially as a global pandemic threatens to completely transform our lives.

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