The Coronavirus pandemic is turning almost every part of life upside down, both in and out of work. And one of my greatest concerns as this pandemic unfolds is the effect it will have on the mental health of clinicians. As a Senior House Officer in Accident and Emergency (A&E), who suffers from pre-existing depression, I think (for now at least) I am more worried about the risk posed by Coronavirus to my mental health than my physical health.
The Effects of Coronavirus on Mental Health
There are many ways that the pandemic can affect the mental health of clinicians. We are seeing a rapidly escalating number of very unwell patients come through our doors, and we are witnessing many dying in our care without their families around them. We experience the unnerving feeling of powerlessness as we manage a condition with no curative treatment, and as we watch world governments struggle to suppress their epidemics despite extreme interventions. We are constantly bombarded and often overwhelmed by masses of information from news outlets, press briefings, social media feeds, WhatsApp groups and journal publications, making it harder than ever to leave work at work. And like the rest of the nation, we feel the loneliness of social-distancing and self-isolation. So how can we look after our mental health during the Coronavirus crisis?
The Importance of Mental Hygiene
In an essay titled How to Be a Recovering Perfectionist, Prof. John Wyatt advocates for the importance of daily ‘mental hygiene’:
We all know that if we wish to remain healthy, we need to practise physical hygiene… Just in the same way, it is helpful to practise the discipline of mental hygiene. That means monitoring the content of my thought life and choosing to fill my mind with positive and healthy thoughts rather than negative, damaging and unhealthy thoughts. And just because I did this yesterday, does not mean that my thought life isn’t important today and every day to come. There is a daily discipline of keeping my thought life healthy.
The apostle Paul gives a wonderful illustration of mental hygiene in Philippians 4:8. ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.’
It’s an interesting list. It starts with truth. Mental hygiene starts with focusing on truth and realism rather than lies and fantasy. Of course, this includes the truth of God’s unconditional love and care for us, his acceptance of us in Christ and the limitless forgiveness he offers. Second, Paul refers to the noble, the right and the pure. These are all aspects of goodness. We are called to focus our thoughts on everything that is good and morally pure. Third comes everything that is lovely, excellent and attractive. These are all aspects of beauty.
I think Wyatt’s points are profoundly helpful for maintaining good mental health. So how can we fill our minds with truth, goodness and beauty during Coronavirus?
Meditating on truth necessarily involves filtering out all the junk and noise that jams our minds. It is clearly vital to keep up to date with the latest clinical and government guidance. But it is also wise to be careful about how much time we spend scrolling through our social media feeds and reading opinion pieces about what the future holds. I think many of us would benefit from cultivating the discipline of regularly turning our screens off.
My social media feeds are saturated with sad statistics and anxious forecasting. But amid the pain of the pandemic, there are positive stories to be grateful for and celebrate. Communities have come together to look after the sick and vulnerable. The nation has united across political and social divides to support the NHS. People are finding more time to talk to friends independent of geographical proximity. And the environment has had a sudden cleanse. Whilst we cannot hide from the pain and suffering of the pandemic, we can still meditate on these good and encouraging events.
We may not be able to visit art galleries or theatres, but we still can fill our minds with beauty. Normally, most of us rarely have time to regularly play music, paint pictures or watch films. But with our social calendars now emptied, we have novel opportunities to utilise the stillness and quietness of lock-down, for enjoying the beauty of music or art or literature or cookery at home.
As Wyatt mentions in his article, as Christians, we believe that truth, goodness and beauty find their richest and ultimate fulfilment in the gospel message of Jesus that we remember this Easter weekend. Out of love for us, he descended from Heaven to Earth to bear our pain and grief even unto death. He then defeated death by rising on that first Easter morning. The most truthful, good and beautiful thing we can fill our minds with, on a daily basis, is the gospel of Jesus.
As this pandemic unfolds, I am fearful of the effect it may have on my mental health and that of my friends and colleagues. These days are going to be challenging for all of us, for a whole host of reasons. But I do also believe one of our best weapons against Coronavirus is regular and disciplined hygiene – both physical and mental!
Benjamin Chang is an FY2 doctor in North London, former President of Christians in Science London, and a member of the CMF Speakers Track. He recently spoke on the struggles being faced by health workers during the COVID-19 crisis on the Speak Life podcast
Remember to join us every day at 7 pm (BST/UTC+1) for #COVID1900Prayer, a chance to pray for health workers, our nation and the world as we respond to COVID-19