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1 October 2021
UWC launches Mental Health Awareness Week to “hit the pause button” during COVID-19 pandemic
To say that COVID-19 has turned life upside down would be an understatement. It has affected not only how we live, but how we mourn for those who have unfortunately succumbed to the virus. Multiple losses, in a time of lockdown when there are restrictions on the rituals we rely on to deal with death, means that many of us are operating in “crisis mode”, explained Roné Gerber, Manager of the University of the Western Cape’s Therapeutic Services

“It feels as if we are just expected to keep moving as the daily demands and pressures are increasing and we are unable to take the necessary time out to pause and process what we are dealing with.” She likened the “profound” impact of the frequency and amount of losses we have to deal with, to a battle scene from the film Braveheart. “You have to keep moving and fighting and you can’t stop to help the fallen or bury and mourn the dead. You don’t know when you will be next and you just keep on, hoping for it to end soon.” She cautioned that operating on this level of adrenaline could lead to burnout and mental health challenges.

With this in mind, UWC is hosting a virtual health mental awareness week starting today, Monday, 4 October. Events include a memorial service on Wednesday, 6 October for the family, friends and colleagues who have died from COVID-19. This opportunity to pause, and reflect on the loss and grief so many people have experienced, will provide some relief in these uncertain times, said Gerber. She cautioned that unresolved grief could lead to what is termed “complicated grief” - an emotional state characterised by symptoms of depression, anxiety and trauma. Left untreated, it could severely affect one’s ability to function optimally in all spheres of life. 

Gerber explained that loss is not only associated with death. We have also experienced some measure of grief reaction, be it for our sense of normality, security or even familiar routines.

“Loss is not only experienced when we lose a person to dying, but it is also related to the feeling of losing many things we are connected to and have meaning to us, such as jobs, income, social contact, routines and structures.” She added that grief is a normal process that follows a loss, and typical feelings include a deep sense of sadness, shock, disbelief, guilt and anger. But the pandemic has also induced feelings of intense shame and guilt as people grapple with perhaps having passed on COVID-19 to someone who then died from the virus. This “survivor’s guilt” can lead to feelings of fatigue, depression, headaches and nausea and, if left untreated, could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. “Dealing with these feelings of guilt is often a very individual process and there is no one fixed recipe for all. The bottom line is that you need to pause, pay attention to your feelings and find the best way to address it.” 

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, UWC is encouraging staff and students to do something for their mental health on Friday, 8 October. They are encouraged to spend an hour and a half outdoors walking, or doing something that brings joy and a moment of stillness in their day.

“Death, dying, bereavement, loss and grief are a part of life that we all experience as human beings. We have developed many rituals, beliefs and processes to help us cope and find ways to adjust. But the current circumstances around COVID-19 are not a normal part of this ebb and flow of life - the pandemic is an extraordinarily catastrophic event that requires much more of us to survive and eventually thrive,” said Gerber. 

She added that the pandemic has also had an impact on people’s need and ability to come together during hardship. “We need to start talking about physical distancing - not social distancing. We need each other to get through this, even though we cannot be there physically. So we have to be creative and find ways to connect and build communities that support each other.” This is why it is so important to take part in UWC’s virtual events this week, be it attending one of the webinars with information about UWC’s counselling sessions, or by taking part in the Walk the Walk for Mental Health. 

UWC’s Mental Health Awareness Week programme