Sabi Phagura catches up with mental health sufferer, campaigner, and author Mark Simmonds (Mental Health Mark – as seen on ITV’s This Morning) to share some of his tips to get through this uncertain time.
Infectious disease outbreaks like the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) can be incredibly frightening. And while we need to stay informed, we need to keep abreast of our general wellbeing. Looking after our mental health becomes even more paramount at times of social distancing and self-distancing, and we need to take steps to ensure we decrease anxiety.
LM: There’s a lot of panic and fear out there about depression, anxiety and loneliness since the unprecedented COVID-19 hit the headlines. Why is this so?
MS: A couple of things here. I am an introvert, and I work for myself. I spend many hours a week in my home office, and I love it!! However, if you are an extrovert and spend most of your time in the office environment in the company of others, then your personality is likely to come under increasing pressure in self-isolation.
If you do not take positive steps to address this, then your mental health may get affected—Facetiming, Skyping for facial contact, for example. Secondly, most people like to have control and certainty in their lives. Coronavirus is changing all of this. Nobody is quite sure what the future holds, and this uncertainty can cause increased levels of anxiety.
LM: Are certain people more susceptible to having mental health issues?
MS: I believe that most families have a ‘tricky gene’ trail. A genetic footprint that bypasses some family members, but runs straight through others. My mother had the Worry gene. She passed it down to me, and I passed it on to my daughter Emily. Her siblings, Jack and Will, touch wood, are not on the trail.
However, having the ‘tricky gene’ does not necessarily mean that you will have mental health issues. It just makes you more susceptible. Extreme pressure at work triggered my ‘tricky gene’, and I had a mental breakdown. Losing control activated Emily’s, and she developed anorexia nervosa.
LM: Tell us some of the ways in which we can remain mentally focused during times of self-isolation and social distancing?
- Ensure that every day is planned and has structure. This will keep you busy and on track.
- Select the communication channels that best suit your personality. Is it WhatsApp or Facetime, email or telephone?.
- Create a space in the house which you can own and personalise. Fill it with fun stuff that makes you happy.
- Find some meaning in what is happening. How can you help others in greater need? How can you keep your thoughts outer-directed rather than inner-directed?
- Convince yourself that there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel and life will be better rather than worse.
LM: How important is it to get exercise and the right type of nutrition during this difficult time?
MS: Extremely. This should be a part of your daily routine. Give yourself a target to achieve in three months’ time, linked to weight or fitness. Find a room in the house that you can convert into a ‘gym’. Develop a 15-minute exercise routine that you can complete four times a week. I am enjoying ‘plank exercises’ which are good for many muscle groups and require nothing except you and some floor space.
LM: What steps should we take if we know someone who is lonely and depressed, but hasn’t yet admitted it to anyone?
MS: You can ask them how they are feeling today. They will tell you that they are feeling OK. You then ask them again how they are feeling. By the time you have asked the same question two or three times, the floodgates will open. And then you stick with them. And you listen. And you encourage. And you make it your absolute number one responsibility to help them open up, talk things through and get the right help. Also, check-in on them regularly.
LM: Do you think that terrible uncertain times, like the one we are going through now, has any positive mental impact on how we all interact?
MS: My optimistic view is that the Coronavirus might change the world forever. I really think that. If every single person can find the strength to reach out to at least one other person who is in greater need, this could become the norm when the Coronavirus eventually says goodbye. The do-gooders need to outnumber the shelf-strippers.
LM: It can be difficult to laugh when something as serious as the Coronavirus is unfolding. But is there anything we can do, to lighten the mood?
MS: Yes, yes, yes!!! My son, Jack and I are producing several homemade three to four-minute videos helping businesspeople stuck at home to cope with the new experience of self-isolation. Although there is a serious underlying message, the approach we are taking is slightly tongue in cheek.
When I wrote my book, Breakdown and Repair, we persuaded the publisher to include illustrations that brought a light touch to a dark topic. We wanted to make people smile through the pain! The banter on WhatsApp now is fantastic and essential, and comedians should be at liberty to rip the Coronavirus to pieces!! Laughter is good for the soul and great for the mind!
Mark Simmonds – Where and How?
Mark Simmonds is the author of Breakdown And Repair, A Father’s Tale Of Stress And Success. You can follow him on Instagram – @mentalhealthmark.