Saturday, 11 April 2020

Embracing the Not Normal

Heather writes about the importance of self-honesty, self-understanding and self-compassion during the coronavirus pandemic. 
- Heather Sutherland

With my mind captivated by the conditions brought about by the spread of COVID-19, I stumbled across an article citing a letter by an American university student (Myrtle), written to her aunt whilst living through the 1918 flu pandemic. A sucker for oral histories and lived experience, I was curious as to whether any detail declared in this 102-year-old letter might relate, and be helpful to, current student-in-pandemic life.

Most striking in the article’s analysis of Myrtle’s letter was: 
“how little of it is dedicated to the flu. She writes about typical student things: class, schoolwork, her relationship, and how life for her is generally fine…as Myrtle’s letter shows, amid such a long-lasting pandemic, there were moments when life simply went on.”

After reading the letter, I felt shamed by its tone; I have not felt my own student life ‘simply go on’. Rather it has felt like all life has been transformed into something with an entirely unanticipated (and predominantly disconcerting) shape and character. I don’t think I’m the only student to feel this way. But am I (we) really so much less resilient and incapable of coping than when others lived through a similar threat with far less in terms of technology and medical research/aid?

But what if Myrtle wasn’t fine? What if she was struggling but had to appear and say she was fine, to reassure her far-away family member, so as to not add to their concerns and fears? (There certainly exists evidence that there were severe impacts of the 1918 pandemic on wider mental health).

What if part of Myrtle’s letter-subtext is actually about how time, effort, and work on ‘the own self’ are requirements to achieve adaptation to a new unexpected way of life? I do know that developing a ‘new normal’ takes time. There is always initial shock, grief, exhaustion, even anger at inflicted, non-sought-for, (traumatic) change; at the beginning, as with all life changes, a phase of adjustment’, where allowance for transition and adaptation occurs, is necessary until a new way of life inevitably develops, where ‘the upset’ is ultimately accepted and lived alongside or incorporated. From Myrtle and her letter, we might discern the need to recognise and be honest about our ‘adaptation phase’ needs, in order to attain that ‘life simply going on’ sense. 

Within our present pandemic experience, it has already become easy to chastise oneself for not being ‘productive enough’, for not engaging in online learning properly, for not maximising on the apparent abundance of reading, mind and knowledge-enhancing time (because there is certainly a projection that this dramatic modification to daily life is a ‘gift’ or ‘opportunity’ for the student and academic community). It can sometimes feel like the communications/advice pertaining to instantly managing student life and academic work at home – implement a routine; stay permanently connected virtually, with multiple people; attend multiple online exercise classes and self-care well; be the best teacher your child ever had and continue your studies at pre-pandemic-agreed rates – are actually adding pressure to feel normality still exists and assuming such things are achievable for all students right now (which they are not). My view is that it is more helpful to acknowledge the NOT normal nature of our current context, for the sake of academic productivity and indeed (student) mental wellness. 

Extreme circumstances are magnifiers of underlying problems – even little, niggling issues or difficulties from before can intensify under the new spotlight, to the extent that they become key players in a person’s overall sense of wellbeing. It is therefore not surprising that for some students the loss of face-to-face routine and physical access to campus resources or staff create senses of disorientation, even grief; that some students will newly-scrutinize or feel different about their living arrangements and relationships in these new circumstances; that existing financial difficulties and worries increase; that worries over academic outcomes are further heightened as the job market for ‘after uni’ looks more fragile than it ever did before… Whilst none of these are mental health issues per se, they are risk factors that may push a person toward poor(er) mental health given how the impact of COVID-19 has intensified them. The impact of COVID-19 is not solely about what the disease is – it is about what it means, how it interacts with the pre-virus-existing lives being lived. It’s the ripples that matter too. 

For me, managing mental health during this pandemic therefore rests on increasing understanding of and kindness to our own selves. Self-authenticity; self-honesty; self-understanding; self-confidence; self-permission for failure; self-forgiveness – these will all aid (student) mental wellbeing over the coming days/weeks/months/years. So, should something not be achieved as intended on one day, let it go. Take one step at a time to build inner wellness. We can all develop and ultimately utilise our resilience for the benefit of ourselves and others as this pandemic runs course, but we can only do that if we know ourselves and express that honestly. The virus-induced amplification of negative emotions does not make us mentally incapable or weak – we’ve just been exposed to an extreme circumstance that quite naturally has been a shock, but that requires self-understanding and self-compassion to facilitate adaptation. 

This is still the beginning of this pandemic but ‘This Too Shall Pass’. We will be able to reach a new normal, similar to Myrtle’s ‘fine-ness’, where individual fears and anxieties will give way to the process of adaptation inherent to humans if we first learn to be honest with ourselves. 

For more information Student Space is here to make it easier for you to find the support you need during the coronavirus pandemic.

For information and advice about looking after your mental wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic, click here. For more of Heather's thoughts on this topic, click here

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m currently a PhD student at Northumbria University, bringing to my studies 20 years of experience in academia (as a student, researcher and tutor, in the UK and abroad). I chose to focus my work on ‘Student Mental Health’ after having lost my brother to suicide, endured my own difficulties whilst a student, and seen the struggles of others within the academic community. I believe hearing and listening to student voices and lived experiences is key to developing approaches to, help for and improvement of student mental health and wellbeing today.

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