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The Two Pandemics

Prof. Lorraine Sherr joins the blog today to share her views of the Covid-19 developments from a personal and mental health professional perspective. Lorraine is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Clinical and Health Psychology at University College London and serves on our Steering Committee.

As we all gaze at a new world in a new reality in the grip of a pandemic, it is important to know that there are two pandemics which go hand in hand – like a shadow.  The virological pandemic stands upright and clear for all to see, and the psychological pandemic, which follows like a shadow dancing in the sunlight, waxing and waning but ever-present.  We have lots of guidance and actions linked to the virological pandemic about travel, isolation, hand washing, respirators, Coronavirus tests, hospital beds and contagion.  Less attention is given to the psychological generally and the psychological issues for children specifically.  The MHPSS Collaborative (Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Collaborative) operates in humanitarian crisis situations.  Little did we know that the whole globe would be in the grip of such a humanitarian crisis in 2020.  The first important point is acknowledging you are in a crisis.  We live in a world where we have assumptions and expectations and when these fizzle out before our eyes, the boundaries become very difficult.  Never before have we seen borders close, the Eiffel Tower deserted, no-one throwing coins into Trevi fountains, China locked behind masks, Trafalgar Square left to the pigeons, aircraft grounded like flocks of geese, New York bustle dwindling to a trickle, stock markets replete with down turning red arrows.   Governments oscillate between protection and self preservation.  People feel somewhat abandoned.  So here are some thoughts.

People often cope by making sense of things.  Information, knowledge, opinions of others, evidence are all things that help us make sense of things.  In this time we do not have these tools in abundance.  When we do not know what to do we need to cope.  We know that whistling, saying Supercalafragalisticexpialidocious and other distracting techniques help.  The mantra of “wash your hands” is taking its place.  We need to know why, how, when to do it, when not.  We need to keep positive and smiling.  We know that frowning takes 43 muscles and only 17 to smile.  So smile as an energy saving exercise.  We need our routines.  We need our communication.  So be creative and substitute.  If you are in lockdown use the internet, use drawings, pictures, music.  In Italy they are singing out the windows; in Amsterdam they are creating a hand clapping chorus.   Join in and create your own.  As they close schools keep your children occupied, informed and learning.  Structure their day, answer their questions, address their fears, keep behaviour boundaries clear, provide them with avenues to express and have their questions answered quickly and truthfully.  Teach them about blowing kisses and blowing hugs.  Turn social distancing into a hoola hoop game.

At this time, we have a lot of statistics thrown at us.  Epidemiology and mathematicians understand these numbers, 4,000 to one; three million,??**   But be aware that psychological odds and statistics are different.  Human beings  invariably revert to those.  Either you are isolated or not (yes/no), either you have got Coronavirus or not (yes/no), either you are healthy or not (yes/no) either you are worried or not (yes/no).  So lets shape up to the fact that psychological odds may be 50% and start some of our relaxation strategies.   Direction, diversion, distraction, dig in.  Know where you are going and don’t forget to take your family friends and community with you.  Don’t dwell on worries, distract and busy yourself, be creative, have parties in your living room, paint pictures, write notes to put on your gate, make a diary of your life at this time.  Use it as an opportunity.  Be optimisitic.  A wonderful Nobel Laureatte (Prof Michael Levitt) has noted that Corona may be slowing us down, but humanity will survive.  The advice is not to panic – we are resilient – and divert your energy to looking after yourself and those around you.

Prof. Lorraine Sherr

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