Meditations in an Emergency: Coping with Mental Health in a Pandemic

To be or not to be? the eponymous tragic hero of Shakespeare’s Hamlet ponders. 

In the looming fear of the coronavirus pandemic, it feels as if we are living in a time defined by anxiety. You wake up with a racing heart. You check your phone, turn the TV on, and the news is constantly blasting to its fullest extent. In a wave of constant bombardments of negative news, it has effectively triggered an unusual sense of anxiety all over the world; it is the anxiety of losing loved ones, financial status, and political instability. However, most importantly, what this virus has reminded us most of all is one that we have denied continuously, which is that we are all mortal beings. The paradox of life is that it ends. Thus, what else can we do but sit helplessly at home watching the world seemingly burn down and ask ourselves the unavoidable question: what is the point? 

As someone who struggles with anxiety, this can feel like a personified version of my worst fears. The basis of anxiety is the fear of the unknown, which is what the virus thrives on. During the first few weeks of self-isolation, the situation felt like my very own personal nightmare as I continuously scrolled through various news sources to no avail and ritually monitored my body for any possible symptom. 

Yet, in the face of helplessness, there is a stillness to it. In the poem ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, Frank O’Hara poses an immediate juxtaposition in the title: how can there be meditation in a time of emergency? However, as the rest of the world begin to catch up on the fears of contracting the virus, my everyday normal has become the new normal. Ironically, my fears of uncertainty have become validated by the uncertainty of the current moment which brings forward a strange sense of calmness. 

Additionally, the pandemic can affect mental health in a myriad of other ways. For some, the period of imposed isolation means that they are stuck with people who deteriorate their mental health. Some might be stuck with an abusive partner while some might be stuck with toxic family members. Tragically, this is evident as news reports have shown how domestic violence has continued to increase globally. Being quarantined in a toxic environment can feel extremely suffocating, as if one is forced to run in circles around a room without stopping and there is no door to escape. In particular, due to the lack of mental health awareness and resources in Indonesia, it becomes increasingly difficult to find healthy ways to cope with both mental and/or physical abuse. 

Then again, it is important to remind ourselves that what we are experiencing is ultimately temporary and that better days lie ahead. Even in a seemingly hopeless period, it has shown our strength as people, as people around the world have joined together to applaud healthcare workers and strangers have begun singing and dancing together even when they are placed far apart from one another. Hopefully if there is good to come out of this crisis, it would be to call for the realisation that a disparate inequality exists globally, that healthcare should be a right given to all members of society, and that mental health must be treated with as much care as physical health. As I sigh at the prospect that this pandemic has resulted in setbacks in my mental health journey I have struggled to maintain, I continue to remind myself that even if I fall down I can always pick up the pieces and pull myself back up. Thus, as we continue to ponder the purpose of all this, the universe replies with the harsh answer that maybe there is no meaning to anything. Although instead of being discouraged by it, one can embrace the absurdity of the human condition itself, and carry on with the sisyphean task of our daily lives. Again, as aptly put by Frank O’Hara in his collection of lunch poems:

the only thing to do is simply continue

is that simple

yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do

can you do it

yes, you can because it is the only thing to do.

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