The month of May is mental health awareness month in the UAE and in many other countries. As we cope with the affects of the Covid-19, albeit gradually moving forward here in the Emirates to opening up, the message of awareness is a good reminder that many, if not all, of us have faced challenges over the past year.
So many people the world over are affected by differing aspects of stress. I have been reflecting on some of those. People have lost loved ones, or watched virtually as those close to them suffered – from contracting the virus or indirectly, through the effects of global lockdowns. It makes you think how much worse it must be when the loved ones suffering are far away and you cannot visit them because of travel restrictions. All you can do, as I have done with members of my immediate family, is to wait, helplessly, for them to recover.
But there are other forms of Covid-related stress that also need acknowledgement. Many people have lost their jobs because of companies downsizing or closing down. While unemployment is always a challenge, particularly for those with families, it is more severe when prospects of finding a new job seem remote. Such circumstances can bring about a sudden descent from being able to manage, more or less, to a state of near desperation.
Last summer, when lockdowns were still relatively new, it was easier to come to terms with the disruption to our conventional way of life. Next month, the educational year draws to a close. It will be more difficult, more stressful, this year if the longed-for travel to a home country or on holiday is once again out of reach.
Some teachers from overseas, I hear, are giving up their jobs and planning to return home simply because they no longer wish to live in such a state of uncertainty, distanced from their families and homes.
It is not just teachers who have had a difficult time coping. While some students have thrived with online learning, others much prefer to be in school, interacting with their teachers and their peers. The need for restrictions, including the renewed, temporary, closing of schools if new Covid-19 cases are found, is clear, but the uncertainty is inevitably disruptive and disturbing for students, teachers and parents alike.
For the majority of us who wear masks in offices, malls and shops, there is a bit of tension each time we encounter someone without a mask. Fortunately, in Abu Dhabi, that is fairly unusual.
At times you have to remind someone who chooses not to wear a mask that they should do so – and that itself causes additional stress. An acquaintance of mine has on several occasions been obliged to insist that someone without a mask does not push themselves in to a lift with her. The near-panic she experiences in rightfully telling them off is also a form of stress.
Then there is also the stress of isolation or loneliness experienced during the pandemic. Some of us can survive comfortably without frequent interactions with other people. Others find it difficult, for a variety of reasons, which is presumably why authorities felt the need to warn that large groups of people meeting during Ramadan or the Eid were liable to be prosecuted. Coming together in a social environment is not, however, just a matter of being selfish. For some people, it is a necessity.
From a mental health perspective, these examples create very different levels of stress and are challenging in different ways. Coping with death, or with a serious illness affecting a family member or friend, are not comparable with the frustration of not being able to travel or annoyance at the proximity of someone not wearing a mask.
At the same time, the fragility of mental health can vary. Some people cope or seem to cope with enormous challenges relatively easily. Others may find that managing issues – that to others may appear minor – can be quite a major difficulty. And even those who are apparently strong may be concealing, even from themselves, real vulnerabilities.
As mental health awareness month draws to a close, I would ask for recognition that even the strongest and most mentally resilient among us may occasionally need help. It sometimes happens that even the tiniest bit of stress is all it takes to disrupt our well-being – the last straw, so to speak.
In our own ways, we have all faced new and unwelcome challenges over the last year. Let's bear that in mind when dealing with one another – and let's do so for longer than just the rest of the month.
Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National