The physiological effects of contagion and isolation go beyond fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus
BY WAEL MY MOHAMED
The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the mental and social well-being of the population.
According to studies, adolescents, college students, and healthcare workers are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other distress symptoms because of their exposure.
Psychological alienation and surveillance measures have altered people’s relationships and perceptions of caring for others.
SARS, Ebola, H1N1, Equine Flu, and the latest Covid-19 pandemics have shown that the physiological effects of contagion and isolation go beyond the fear of contracting the virus. Any aspect of the pandemic, such as isolation from loved ones, a lack of freedom, confusion about the disease’s progression, and a feeling of helplessness, has a greater impact on the population. These factors may have severe consequences, such as a rise in suicidal thoughts.
I had to choose between visiting my big family in Egypt, which was thousands of miles away, and living near my lab and work in Malaysia as lawmakers started enacting travel bans in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. My first thoughts were practical: my university might reopen study facilities until travel restrictions are lifted, being away from home would preclude me from returning to lab work on time, scheduling an international flight on short notice might be costly, and what might happen to my visa if I left the country now?
This situation put me in a lot of pressure and stress as I needed to take a rapid sharp decision that I may regret for the rest of my life. There seemed to be only one solution in this case: I will not return home.
As my mental health and morale diminished, I managed to maintain normal productivity levels. To sustain production, I took on new assignments and obligations, whilst my work-life balance disappeared. However, as I responded to the complexities of an extraordinary situation, I found myself working more hours and accomplishing less.
Pressure to excel
And as I struggled, I felt as though I had no one with whom I could confide. Being a health practitioner in academia, and because of the pandemic, the overworked health workers suffered from elevated levels of psychophysical tension. Secondary traumatic stress disorder, which explains the sense of distress encountered in the supporting relationship where medications are not available for all patients and the provider must chose who should and who cannot get them, was often lived by health workers on a regular basis.
In academia, there is a lot of pressure on researchers to excel. The number of PhDs awarded has far outstripped the number of vacancies available in academia, and the number of postdoctoral positions available far outnumbers the number of principal investigator positions. Those who “win” lucrative tenure-track faculty jobs have defied the odds in a competitive environment, and the expectation to excel is enormous.
Academic life is a relentless juggling act in which we continue to juggle personal and professional commitments when dealing with the burden of managing demands in a sometimes-hypercompetitive setting. There is always the possibility that we’ll miss the ball and be the only ones to blame.
The system believes that we are old enough, wise enough, and tough enough to handle all the pressures that come with academic life. Working as a faculty at any university can be one of the most satisfying careers, but it can also be one of the most challenging. We rapidly move from being
a team member to a team leader; from never caring about receiving grants to being frustrated with grant deadlines; from overseeing a single project to organising and directing the jobs and future of many students and post-docs; and from thinking about ourselves to being absorbed in worrying about anything but our own studies.
Maintaining a work-life balance
When the tenure clock starts ticking, uncertainty and fear rise; the stakes rise, and many people struggle with the complexity of the tenure requirement and the lack of input. The burden builds to publish papers in reputable journals, win prestigious grants, go on lecture tours, and fill in all the gaps in our CV.
Throughout this journey, frustration, disappointment, self-doubt, and burnout are all too normal. We just do not know until it’s too late that maintaining a mediocre work-life balance and trying to be in control comes at a high cost to our fitness, welfare, and communities.
Sleep deficiency, fatigue, irritability, and loneliness are all common side effects of pressure, stress, and anxiety, all of which have a negative impact on our quality of life and relationship with students and colleagues. Chronic stress is also linked to the development of a variety of psychological and cardiovascular diseases.
I suddenly remembered that there are a lot of things I should have accomplished differently; I wish I had had the strength to admit that I wasn’t invincible, to get support for my mental health, and to try harder to maintain work-life balance on a regular basis.
I always struggled to satisfy my duties to my family, and I discovered that there is no such thing as hiding your emotions or concealing your hardships. If you do not cope with them, they will stay on your mind, disrupt your sleep cycle, influence your life, and have an impact on the lives of those around you. I regret not pursuing professional counsel and investing in formal educational workshops that may have supported me with my new duties, maintaining my mental wellbeing, and helping my students and colleagues.
The ongoing crisis has brought to light a commonly held belief: that in a hyper- competitive study industry, weakness can be catastrophic. However, everybody, including those who wish to do good research, should take time to care about their mental health.
The research establishment is doing itself a disservice by pushing its participants to report novel results in the same manner
As the rush to publish novel findings disincentivises cautious study. Thus, it is a must to prioritise research output over personal well-being.
I hope that by expressing my opinion, emotions and perspectives, colleagues in academia will feel more secure speaking out about their problems and mental health issues. We cannot take care of our students if we don’t learn to take care of ourselves as professors. — The Health
Wael MY Mohamed is with the Department of Basic Medical Science, Kulliyyah of Medicine, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).