By Mridula Kashyap
If there was a word of the month, for April 2020, it probably would have been ‘unprecedented’ – we heard it everywhere! After all, we are living in unprecedented times. And for May 2020? Our guess – ‘new normal’.
As we, in India, complete two months of staying, working, living, all at home, we now know that there is no ‘going back to normal’. We now know we’re in it for a long time. And we now need to start looking at the new challenges we’re going to face and create new solutions for our future.
In this whole lot of ‘new’, what happens to the known and the comforting realities of our lives? And how does one make sense of it all when so much has changed – not just externally, but internally as well?
To answer these and more, we at Arthan brought together with some experts and specialists from the mental health space to understand these internal changes, discover tools that can help us and in these times of physical distancing, remind ourselves that we’re all in it together.
So, on Friday, May 22, 2020, Arthan organised a webinar on Mental Wellbeing in the New Normal with four esteemed guests who shared their views and ideas.
Dr Lakshmi Ravikanth, Co-Dean, Banyan Academy for Leadership in Mental Health (BALM)
Dr Lakshmi, who stays in Chennai, started by setting out to work for the mentally ill marginalised women, not just in Chennai, but all across the country. With the aim of integrating them into the larger system, BALM collaborated with TISS and other universities to teach master’s courses in social work in mental health/applied psychology.
Starting the session by asking the participants a question around how much we have been smiling in the last 60 days, she brought to everyone’s notice that it ranges from rarely and not that much to very often, based on the responses received. Different emotional states for different people!
Narrating an incident around her evening walks around her house, she noticed how she would smile on crossing the path with her neighbour, but somehow, not only stopped smiling but stopped making eye contact as well. As her neighbour mentioned that this change got him thinking how the pandemic has changed us, Dr Lakshmi explains that this sudden onset has changed how we experience things and our perception of the world around us. There are newer levels of difficulties and has had an impact on our biorhythms and mindset. However, one needs to remember that this is a typical response to a crisis and that we’re all sharing a common experience.
This crisis has taken a toll on the entire coping mechanism – the rescue, relief, resources available and rehab facilities – all are challenged and press on us to be available creatively for people, especially the marginalised.
So how does one battle our concerns for our programs and people from the point of view of an organisation, while taking into account the burnout phase that many are living through and the chaos that has erupted in personal and professional lives? From a mental wellbeing perspective, the need of the hour is to help develop ‘helping skills’ and onboard lay professionals. While we must re-skill ourselves in order to grow for the careers of the future, we also need to skill ourselves, especially those in HR functions or other people facilitation roles, with the ability to provide relief and resources to those facing mental wellbeing challenges. One of the tips she gave was to remember to LEAP: Listen, Empathise, Appreciate and Psychoeducate. This can be made a part of organisations as we develop other support systems to ensure stronger and healthier individuals. The need of the hour is to skill ourselves with helping skills and network in a way to build connections.
Rachana Iyer, Advisor on Mental Health Advocacy (and Head CSR, IDFC First Bank)
Rachana who leads the CSR function at a bank professionally also dons the hat of an advisor and consultant on mental health advocacy for organisations and individuals.
By simply asking the participants how they were doing, she pointed out that not all of us are really able to talk about how we’re feeling – we simply respond by saying fine or good without paying much attention to what’s actually happening. Paying attention, and identifying mental bruises is important. And to heal those, mental first aid is needed, just as we need general first aid for our physical bodies.
One of the ways to provide this aid is through peer support – creating groups and networks that can offer a safe space to share, be understood and above all, get hope.
Being someone living with a mental health condition and requiring medication, Rachana talked about the importance of Peer Support as something that doesn’t require heavy financial investment and a great way for creating a space for many issues and challenges that can be solved or made better by being there for each other.
Peer Support groups can also be created in an organisation, as long as one remembers to:
- Keep the conversations confidential
- Not give unsolicited advice
- Set guidelines for communication
- Validating each and every challenge/issue/distress (without talking about the intensity or gravity of the situation)
(More about forming peer support groups in Rachana’s presentation here)
Peer Support is very powerful – on one day, you may be in need of encouragement that can get through your group and the next day, you might want to share a positive story, helping you feel more in control and less alone. In a way, it is a mutual exchange of empathy, while letting you be vulnerable when you need to be. Through the group, one can also get support in terms of ideas and information by learning how someone else has coped with a situation or a challenge similar to theirs. Creating peer support groups in an organisation can help reduce issues related to productivity challenges or being emotionally vulnerable and in the long run, employees can feel safe in the organisation.
While peer support goes a long way, it does not take away from the work that mental health professionals do for our wellbeing. And given the current lack of emphasis on mental wellness, it would be important for organisations to invest in it – ideally by setting aside a dedicated fund solely for this purpose.
Rohit Kumar, Co-founder, Apni Shala
Starting his session by conducting polls with the audience, Rohit brought to our notice how neither mental wellbeing has been a part of the conversation in organisations before COVID-19 hit us, nor do most organisations have any policies around it.
As a part of Apni Shala which works for children and the community specifically in the areas of mental health, he realises the importance of keeping employees of all organisations mentally healthy.
As humans, going through various experiences throughout our lives, we constantly fluctuate between wellness and stress. Just as physical health and wellbeing, mental health is for everyone. One doesn’t need to be diagnosed with a condition to work on it. Asking all the participants to think of social, emotional or mental stress gone through in the last one week and then listing down activities that helped through those challenges, Rohit explained how we all have an ability to heal ourselves. Creating safe spaces and by attaching meaning to our experiences, we are able to cope better and then on revisiting the present, we are able to bring compassion to ourselves and those around us. It is impossible to have mental health practitioners in every school, college and organisation. This is where peer to peer support groups come into place. Care also needs to be looked at as a resource – even in organisations, collective care packages should be created and distribution of time and resources for care in the organisation must be done. Just as organisations have clear policies around leaves or are creating WFH (work from home) policies, wellness needs also need to be taken into account:
- Create a supervision framework for leaders, managers and the staff
- Provide support for professional and personal development
- Mentorship for social and emotional support
- Refer employees to external mental health professionals if there is none in-house
- Allow for flexible goal setting and work hours
- Seek feedback to understand what is working and what isn’t and what the needs are
Anindita Anand, Personal Growth Coach & Therapist
One of the many reasons why people shy away from discussing issues related to mental health is the heavy use of complicated and complex words and terminologies. As a personal growth coach and a therapist, Anindita believes her task is to simplify the terms for everyone and create workshops and modules that can help many people.
Beginning her session by asking everyone present to stand up and dance for a few seconds, Anindita reminded us that by being at home constantly, may of us are not even doing the regular daily physical activities of walking or climbing stairs. The lockdown has also caused an increase in the requirement for mental health professionals. And to understand this change, one must understand the functioning of our mind.
Likening our minds to a ceiling fan, Anindita explained that just like a fan, our minds too have speeds – from 1 to 5. And just like a fan works on electricity, our mind works on the energy of the body. During times of having excess energy levels, we send extra energy to our minds which then tends to overthink or create anxious thoughts. And to bring our mind down to energy level 1, we can regulate it by breathing exercises – like a regulator for our minds!
Anindita explains that in these times, with reduced physical activities, yet similar food eating habits, we are unable to provide a channel to the extra energy, leading to more thoughts and more anxieties. By practising deep breathing for at least 10-15 minutes a day and including some form of physical activity, we can regulate our thoughts and deal with many of the challenges facing us. However, she reminds us that this is not an alternative to professional therapy and counselling and in case someone is facing prolonged mental distress, they must seek help. Kind of like coaching classes for your mind – if one can take help for mathematics or science, one can take help for our minds!
With each passing day, newer developments have newer kinds of impact on us – and it is only natural. But, by making each individual stronger will we be able to create a stronger collective and find the strength to get through it all.
If you wish to share any thoughts and ideas with us or would like to connect with us or the speakers, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org