Speaking via Zoom, psychotherapist Yvonne Hodge-Grant offers advice for how public officers and other residents can use various techniques for identifying and handling anxiety. (Photo: PROVIDED)

A recent video chat about mental health started off with reassurances that feelings of anxiety are normal, and an invitation to virtually join the moderator in enjoying a calming mug of chamomile tea.

Virgin Islander Yvonne Hodge-Grant is a cognitive behaviour therapist working with Mind, a mental health charity based in the United Kingdom, where she currently resides. As a trained psychotherapist, she specialises in crisis intervention, conflict resolution and other areas.

On April 21 she spoke via Zoom about some of the challenges to mental health of being in lockdown. The session, which was sponsored by the Virgin Islands government, was aimed at helping public officers who are facing the unknown every day.

“It does place tremendous strain on all of us, … not just personally, but professionally as well,” Ms. Hodge-Grant said.

Some of the VI residents who tuned in shared what aspects of life they’ve found most difficult to manage since the Covid-19 pandemic emerged.

Human first

Addressing about 50 people who listened in to the video chat, Ms. Hodge-Grant offered a reminder that it’s normal to find it challenging to cope with a barrage of stress during a crisis.

“No one is perfect in any of this, and it’s impacting all of us,” she said. “Perfection is not possible, so we want to share how it feels to be human right now.”

She encouraged listeners to take advantage of the interactive format and share what problems and solutions were working well for balancing work and home life under one roof.

One guidance counsellor described the difficulty of creating a secure environment where students feel comfortable sharing their confidential concerns. She said this is especially challenging when interacting with younger students who can’t manage the technology on their own or don’t fully comprehend the situation at hand.

“I’m still learning what to do, and now I have to learn how to do this from a distance,” the counsellor said.

She was able to conduct some outreach at home through phone calls and video chats despite the 24-hour lockdown. However, the meetings didn’t always go to plan.

“I spent most of the session, for example, explaining to a mother that she needs to give her 13-year-old daughter some degree of privacy,” the guidance counsellor said. “She just didn’t understand that. If I’m trying to have a session with a student who maybe wouldn’t want to open up to me if their parents were hearing what that child was saying, how am I supposed to guarantee confidentiality?”

In the long term, Education, Culture Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said school staff members will be able to re-enter buildings to conduct their lesson plans, and eventually small gatherings of students in need of in-person teaching may be permitted. But schools will be closed to most students for the rest of the year.

Listeners in other professions shared similar concerns with not being able to conduct business as usual. A teacher shared how difficult it was to look forward to seeing students last week, only to have the round-the-clock curfew extended another week.

“I was fine for the most part,” the teacher said about the first few weeks of the lockdown. “I had a routine. I was up in the mornings, having my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was exercising and doing yoga. It was all great until that last week. I got really anxious. I guess it was the anticipation of this coming somewhat to an end, and then, of course, the lady was found to be in the late stages of the virus.”

Closer to home

Ms. Hodge-Grant also encouraged attendees to open up about personal difficulties. Their chief concerns ranged from insomnia to anxiety about food shortages to distress about not being able to mourn the loss of loved ones in traditional ways.

“We are in a state of not knowing,” one listener said regarding uncertainty about her employment situation.

Anxiety is an involuntary physical response to stress and to be expected in uncertain times, Ms. Hodge-Grant said. But she encouraged those who were struggling with extreme anxiety to seek out the specific sources of it and focus on what action can be taken as a possible remedy.

Looking at food insecurity, Ms. Hodge-Grant said dwelling on worries about it won’t fill empty pantries, but coming up with a meal plan for what’s already there, as one attendee did with her daughter, is a productive action.

Techniques

The “STOPP method” is a framework for dealing with anxiety, she said. The acronym encourages people to stop, take a breath, observe what they are experiencing, put it into perspective, and put it into practice.

When it comes to putting an issue into perspective, Ms. Hodge-Grant said it can be helpful to consider what advice a person would give a friend in a similar situation.

A different technique Ms. Hodge-Grant shared prompts people to single out a concern and ask, “What would it mean if… ?”

The person then follows the line of logic until a deeper source of anxiety is revealed.

What may seem on the surface like anxiety about not having enough food could be rooted in a fear of failing to provide for one’s family and being labelled an unfit parent. Shifting perspective can shed light on how to focus on productive activities, like listing evidence of being a good parent, rather than leaving a person with a vague sense of uneasiness, she explained.

“We have to find the coping mechanisms that work best for us,” Ms. Hodge-Grant said.

The group plans to hold future meetings for public officers about similar topics while the pandemic measures continue. For more information, email Idu@gov.vg.


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