Mental well-being in the age of Covid-19

Nothing feels normal anymore.

We are on forced lockdown, holed up in our homes, worried about loved ones living under a different roof. We are physically isolating ourselves. Some of us are experiencing disappointment and sadness for having to miss milestones such as birthdays, weddings, and graduations. Many are facing the harsh and unexpected reality of unemployment and financial hardship.

Parents with young children at home are under unprecedented and unsustainable pressure. With schools and day-cares closed during the pandemic, many parents are trying to do the impossible by working while schooling and supervising their children at the same time.

Children too are going through a rough time. Children, especially younger ones, in the absence of structure and routine, may experience anxiety and behavioural problems.

Victims of domestic violence are now closed in all day with their abuser, and children from families with dysfunctional dynamics do not find the respite and safety net provided by their school.

Covid-19 has awakened feelings of fear, helplessness and hopelessness, all crippling to mental health. These are compounded by social isolation, the loss of any semblance of structure and routine, and uncertainty.

The irresponsible actions of a few who blatantly ignore and defy the recommendations of the health authorities and the precepts of common sense are further heightening the anxiety of many who fear for their own safety and that of their loved ones. The threat of a second wave is also very worrying to many.

These circumstances, especially if protracted, can easily fray the mental health and emotional resilience of most. We need to be vigilant for the signs that we are no longer coping, and that our anxieties are turning dark and dangerous, in which case we should not hesitate to reach out. We should also avoid increasing habits that will only make things worse, like smoking, drug use and drinking.

Here are a few ideas that can help us cope with the situation. It may not be possible to take on all these ideas, but even taking on a couple of them will help.

Establish a schedule. Our days and nights, weekdays and weekends are now blended, and many people, especially those working from home find themselves working more hours. One way to fight back to is establish a schedule that strictly separates work from family time and me-time and creates structure and routine.

Exercise can improve your physical health and gives you an enormous sense of well-being. People who exercise regularly feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. It is best to exercise in the morning, before energy and motivation wane away. There are many fitness instructors who are giving free online lessons.

Practice mindfulness. The practice of mediation and yoga as well as mindfulness are invaluable for mental well-being. When you shift the focus of your attention from all that is tiring and weighing it, you provide your mind with rest and respite. Train yourself to practice mindfulness always, whatever activity you are engaged in. You can find tons of information about this online.

Practice gratitude Science has shown that people who practice gratitude are happier and more optimistic. Try to think of three things that you are grateful for every day and allow yourself to feel the welling of gratitude for a few of minutes. During the day, try to remember and back to that feeling.

Personal hygiene and appearance Maintaining good personal hygiene, keeping yourself well-groomed and well-kept are key to mental well-being, even if you are not leaving the house and no one is going to see you. It will bolster your self-confidence and your mood, and help you feel good about yourself.

Do not focus on bad news Avoid an obsessive focus on alarming media reports on the pandemic and the devastation to the economy. Do not follow people or hashtags that give you anxiety while reading them. Avoid speculation, conspiracy theories and unreliable news sources. Consider reducing the use of social media and disconnecting totally from it for 24 hours occasionally. Instead, read a good book, watch a good film or a funny one.

Do things which interest you and/or give you pleasure Try to do the things you normally enjoy doing. Stay connected and maintain a social life by connecting online with loved ones who are living apart and with friends.

Learn something new. If you now have more time on your hands, consider learning a new skill. There are plenty of affordable online courses. You could learn something simply because you like it and always wished to learn it, or because it will improve your career. Either way, being mentally engaged distracts the mind from negativity, and learning new skills can give a sense of achievement. It could possibly help your career too!

Sleep – Sleep deprivation leads to anxiety and depression, whilst anxiety leads to poor sleep, a vicious circle. A healthy lifestyle and practicing good sleep hygiene can often help our quality of sleep. Make sure that you religiously maintain regular sleep-wake hours, and that you do not sleep too little or too much.

Do watch this short video by Unicef:

The truth of the matter is that this situation is not going to go away soon. But we need to find meaning in all this. This is a test for the human spirit and fortitude. This is an opportunity for humanity to find once again its humaneness, compassion, and empathy. It is an opportunity to show and practice kindness. That another rhythm besides the rat race we were all caught up in is possible. It can help us rediscover the importance of family and self.

The Covid-19 pandemic was not our choice, but our response to it is.

Size matters – or does it?

The army, the business, the political party, the sports team with the most resources is usually expected to win in confrontations. But history has shown us countless times that this is not always the case. One underappreciated example of a battle where an army beat a larger, better trained and resourced army was The Battle of Cannae.

The Battle of Cannae happened on August 2, 216 BC in southeast Italy near the ancient village of Cannae, between Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal Barca and Roman forces led by Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro.

The Roman army of 90,000 well-trained soldiers was decimated by the smaller Carthaginian army of some 50,000 soldiers. It was the darkest day for the Romans in ancient history. General (later President) Dwight Eisenhower said of the battle:

“every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation; so far as conditions permit, he tries to duplicate the classical example of Cannae.”

This 7 minute video gives a good summary of the battle.

Hannibal was successful in defeating the Roman army because he was able to identify his adversary’s biggest weaknesses. The Roman army was inflexible and slow to react. The Roman army was much larger, highly trained and well armed, however most of their military tactics were designed for a head-on confrontation, preferably on a flat terrain, a show of muscle and might. Hannibal drew the Roman army into believing that this would be one such battle, then sprung his trap.

Hannibal was not only a shrewd strategist, but an outstanding leader. His army included African, Iberian and Celtic soldiers and mercenaries. Yet not only did he manage to get them to work together and be disciplined in the execution of his plan, but he knew how to maximise their diverse skills and strengths. When one succeeds in harnessing diversity and unleashing the potential of a diverse team, the results can be spectacular.

We can also learn from Hannibal’s mistakes. His biggest mistake or failure was logistical; with the correct logistical planning, he may well have continued marching onto Rome and captured it, as the Romans believed he would do (in fact in later years, when Roman parents wanted to scare their children into obedience they would tell them “Hannibal ad portas” – Hannibal is at the gates).

Hannibal had many military successes, and his exploits have much to teach all those whose skill set requires leadership and strategic skills.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can draw from this particular battle is that size or resources are not necessarily the only determinants of the outcome of a confrontation.

The greatest resource for success is actually located between our two ears.

Integrity is like virginity

“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.”

CS Lewis

A great definition of integrity is always doing the right thing, even when no one is looking, even when the choice isn’t easy, and even when acting with integrity can have serious negative consequences.

Living life with integrity isn’t just about having high morals and clearly defined values. Integrity is a choice we make, and it’s a choice we must keep making, every moment of our lives. It’s a verb.

Integrity implies consistency. There’s an old Japanese proverb that says “The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.”

The word integrity comes from the Latin word “integer”, which means “intact, whole, complete,” and figuratively, “untainted, upright”. People of integrity do not say one thing and do another, believe in a value but do not keep it or pursue it. Compromises are not acceptable. People with integrity are true to themselves.

Integrity is also essential on a public level for good governance and for building strong institutions, and assures citizens that the government is working in their interest, not just for the select few. Lack of integrity by politicians or people in the higher echelons of government is what has lead people around the world to be disillusioned by politics, governments and institutions, and impoverishes society and on several levels and in many different ways.

The world around is is in very bad shape. It will only start to change for the better when people (we) start acting with integrity. That means acting with full honesty, fairness and justice. We need to demand integrity from all around us, and from those in power. Only then will the world start changing for the better. But it is useless expecting and demanding integrity from others unless we demand it of ourselves first and foremost.

Pygmalion – Great Expectations

In Greek mythology there is a story about a man called Pygmalion.

According to the myth, Pygmalion was a talented sculptor who lived in Cyprus. Once he sculpted what he considered the perfect representation of the female form from a block of ivory. Soon he found himself falling in love with his creation, and treating the sculpture as though it were a real woman, adorning it with fine clothes and jewellery.

Pygmalion’s love for the sculpture was so great that he prayed to the goddess Aphrodite, Olympian goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation, asking that his creation would become a real person. Aphrodite granted his wish, and breathed life into the statue. Pygmalion was overjoyed, and went on to marry his beloved, Galatea.

The myth forms the basis of a theory that is applicable in several settings, for example the classroom and the workplace, the Pygmalion Effect.

The story is also the basis of the famous work written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw, “Pygmalion” (My Fair Lady), which illustrates the Pygmalion Effect. Instead of being transformed from stone, Eliza is transformed from her ghastly English that she starts off with.

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle says:

“You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.”

The Pygmalion Effect is very important in the classroom.

A teacher’s expectations about a child almost invariably turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a teacher believes a child to be slow, the child will come to believe that, too, and will learn slowly (this effect has been named ‘The Golem Effect’, after the golem creature in Jewish mythology).

If, on the other hand, a child is lucky enough to find a teacher who believes that he or she is bright and has potential, the lucky child will intuit that expectation and will rise to fulfill it.

The Pygmalion Effect is also relevant to the workplace. For example, if a manager is convinced that an individual who reports to him or her is a star, that individual will reliably outperform any other individuals whose manager believes the opposite, even if the innate talent of the two is similar.

In Pygmalion in ManagementJ. Sterling Livingston writes,

Some managers always treat their subordinates in a way that leads to superior performance. But most … unintentionally treat their subordinates in a way that leads to lower performance than they are capable of achieving. The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If manager’s expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.

While the Pygmalion Effect is certainly true, – it has been confirmed so many times, and in such varied settings, that it’s no longer even debated, – it does not mean that you can just expect whatever you want from someone else. Expectations should be positive and optimistic but realistic.

The Pygmalion Effect works as a circular mechanism: 

  1. Other people’s beliefs about us influence their actions toward us. 
  2. Their actions towards us influence and reinforce our beliefs about ourselves 
  3. Our beliefs about ourselves influence our actions toward others 
  4. Our actions toward others impact other people’s beliefs about us.

And then back to 1. This circular mechanism can be influenced at all four stages.

Therefore we need to realise that as parents, teachers, friends, colleagues, managers and leaders, we can all be Pygmalion in a variety of situations and settings, and that we have the power to unleash a person’s potential.


“Pygmalion saw these women [the Propoitides who had become prostitutes,] waste their lives in wretched shame, and critical of faults which nature had so deeply planted through their female hearts, he lived in preference, for many years unmarried.–But while he was single, with consummate skill, he carved a statue out of snow-white ivory, and gave to it exquisite beauty, which no woman of the world has ever equalled: she was so beautiful, he fell in love with his creation. It appeared in truth a perfect virgin with the grace of life, but in the expression of such modesty all motion was restrained–and so his art concealed his art. Pygmalion gazed, inflamed with love and admiration for the form, in semblance of a woman, he had carved. He lifts up both his hands to feel the work, and wonders if it can be ivory, because it seems to him more truly flesh.–his mind refusing to conceive of it as ivory, he kisses it and feels his kisses are returned. And speaking love, caresses it with loving hands that seem to make an impress, on the parts they touch, so real that he fears he then may bruise her by his eager pressing. Softest tones are used each time he speaks to her. He brings to her such presents as are surely prized by sweet girls; such as smooth round pebbles, shells, and birds, and fragrant flowers of thousand tints, lilies, and painted balls, and amber tears of Heliades, which distill from far off trees.–he drapes her in rich clothing and in gems: rings on her fingers, a rich necklace round her neck, pearl pendants on her graceful ears; and golden ornaments adorn her breast. All these are beautiful–and she appears most lovable, if carefully attired,–or perfect as a statue, unadorned. He lays her on a bed luxurious, spread with coverlets of Tyrian purple dye, and naming her the consort of his couch, lays her reclining head on the most soft and downy pillows, trusting she could feel.
The festal day of Venus, known throughout all Cyprus, now had come, and throngs were there to celebrate. Heifers with spreading horns, all gold-tipped, fell when given the stroke of death upon their snow-white necks; and frankincense was smoking on the altars. There, intent, Pygmalion stood before an altar, when his offering had been made; and although he feared the result, he prayed : ‘If it is true, O Gods, that you can give all things, I pray to have as my wife–’ but, he did not dare to add ‘my ivory statue-maid,’ and said, ‘One like my ivory–.’ Golden Venus [Aphrodite] heard, for she was present at her festival, and she knew clearly what the prayer had meant. She gave a sign that her divinity favored his plea : three times the flame leaped high and brightly in the air. When he returned, he went directly to his image-maid, bent over her, and kissed her many times, while she was on her couch; and as he kissed, she seemed to gather some warmth from his lips. Again he kissed her; and he felt her breast; the ivory seemed to soften at the touch, and its firm texture yielded to his hand, as honey-wax of Mount Hymettus turns to many shapes when handled in the sun, and surely softens from each gentle touch. He is amazed; but stands rejoicing in his doubt; while fearful there is some mistake, again and yet again, gives trial to his hopes by touching with his hand. It must be flesh! The veins pulsate beneath the careful test of his directed finger. Then, indeed, the astonished hero poured out lavish thanks to Venus; pressing with his raptured lips his statue’s lips.
Now real, true to life–the maiden felt the kisses given to her, and blushing, lifted up her timid eyes, so that she saw the light and sky above, as well as her rapt lover while he leaned gazing beside her–and all this at once–the goddess graced the marriage she had willed, and when nine times a crescent moon had changed, increasing to the full, the statue-bride gave birth to her dear daughter Paphos. From which famed event the island takes its name.”

Ovid, Metamorphoses 10. 243 ff (trans. Brookes More) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.)

Churchill’s Black Dog

 

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was a man of many talents, a superb and inspirational leader, and a complex character.

 Churchill was a prolific writer. In terms of quantity, he wrote roughly twice the amount of words Charles Dickens wrote. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1953 was awarded to Churchill  “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” At his death Churchill left 15 tons of personal papers. 

He was also a talented painter. Though his work was not outstanding, experts say that he could easily have made a living off painting. He painted over 500 pieces throughout his lifetime, mostly landscapes. 

One of the reasons he painted was because he found painting to be uplifting, which was vital to him, as he suffered from bipolar disorder.

“Painting came to my rescue in a most trying time,” he wrote. He preferred uplifting colours. “I cannot pretend to feel impartial about the colours,” he wrote, “I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.” 

He would experience long bouts of depression during which he would take a step back from life and spend much of his time painting (he used to speak of the depression as his Black Dog).

He also found brick-laying to be soothing during these periods, a pastime he also took very seriously.

A close look at his life shows that he had several typical features of bipolar disorder. His friend Lord Beaverbrook once said of Churchill that he was either “at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression.”

When mania (periods of great excitement or euphoria, delusions, and over-activity) kicked in, he would be on a roll, still bursting with energy at two in the morning, exhausting his secretaries who could not match his energy levels, and a perennially erupting volcano of ideas most of which would be unfeasible.

He was impulsive, at times putting himself in grave, personal danger and often irrational in his decisions and actions, with disregard for consequences.

An incorrigible spendthrift, throughout his life he always spent far beyond his means in extravagance, luxury he could ill afford, gambling, and an obstinate refusal to plan or monitor his finances. He was plagued by financial problems throughout his life.

He was often selfish, self-centered, belligerent, obnoxious, sarcastic, overbearing, rude to others and arrogant, and had little regard for the opinions of most people.

Churchill had this sense of grandiosity, his unwavering belief in himself as a great man, his early sense of self-importance and grand destiny. He once said:

“we are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow worm”

Despite these typical bipolar traits, his inspirational leadership in war-time, when everyone thought that the odds against Britain surviving the war (let alone winning) was a beacon of hope for the British nation, and one of the key factors that determined the outcome of the war. Some would say that Churchill managed to lead Britain to  victory over Nazism despite having bipolar disorder. Others would say he managed to do so because he had bipolar disorder.

In an essay in his book Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind, psychiatrist and historian Anthony Storr wrote:

“Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgement might well have concluded that we were finished.”

If you suffer from a mental health condition, be it depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia etc, take courage from Churchill’s achievements and know that you can do great things!

Not everyone can be a Churchill, but you can make a positive difference in some way or another (it doesn’t really matter whether it’s in a small way or a big way) to the people around you, to society and to the environment

Try keeping Churchill’s life maxim in mind:”Never give up”.

And in the darkest periods of your life, remember that dawn never fails to follow hot on the heels of every nightfall.

David and Goliath

In the well known story of David and Goliath, it has been traditionally believed that David was the underdog. In fact it was Goliath who stood no chance against David; David’s victory was a foregone conclusion. But the Israelites were so paralysed by their fear that they could not see it, even when the solution was given to them.

David was a slinger. Slingers were renowned for the incredible accuracy, and could easily kill someone from a distance of over a 100 meters. In the hands of an experienced slinger, a heavy stone could reach speeds of up to 160 km/h, with the stopping power of a .44 Magnum. The Romans actually had special tongs to remove the stones that embedded themselves in soldiers wounded by slingshots.

Goliath and the Philistine army never expected a slinger. Neither did it cross the Israelites’ mind to send one. Everyone was thinking of a hand to hand combat. For the Israelites, defeating Goliath was impossible. But it turned out to be perfectly possible; in fact it was easy, it took David just a few seconds to kill the giant, Goliath. We tend to feel comfortable with dogmas, the dominant ideas , assumptions, rules and conventions that everyone accepts without questioning, abides by and vociferously defends, no matter what. Solving a problem by looking at it from a new perspective or re-framing it requires courage, as it means letting go of the security generated by thinking in the same way the rest of the world thinks.Yet it is only when we discard the security of our established thinking patterns and preconceived notions, and re-examine problems from an entirely different view point, reframing them, that we can find solutions to problems that seem insurmountable.

It is only then, that we can defeat our Goliaths.  

Vigil for Truth and Justice

I was invited to deliver a speech at The Vigil for Truth and Justice organised by Repubblika, Occupy Justice Malta and Manuel Delia on the 16th February 2020. Below is the full text of my speech.

Fellow activists.

When I was asked to deliver a speech here this evening, I started thinking: what message could I pass on to you that has not been passed on to you already? What is there that needs to be said that has not been said already?

Then it struck me that a good message to bring to you is one that we can never have enough of, especially when the odds seem heavily stacked against us. One of hope. One of encouragement.

If we look around us, it may well seem that we are in a hopeless and dire situation.

Till a few weeks ago, we had a prime minister – Joseph Muscat – who was awarded the title of The 2019 MAN OF THE YEAR IN ORGANIZED CRIME AND CORRUPTION by OCCRP.

For context, OCCRP is the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. It’s a non-profit media organization that connects 45 non-profit investigative centres and scores of journalists in 34 countries across four continents to turn the tables on corruption and abuse of power happening at the expense of the people.

OCCRP must certainly have been spoilt for choice when choosing the winner of the award. Yet it chose Joseph Muscat.

What are we faced with today?

The 2019 MAN OF THE YEAR IN ORGANIZED CRIME AND CORRUPTION’s chosen one appointed as prime minister.

The 2019 MAN OF THE YEAR IN ORGANIZED CRIME AND CORRUPTION’s cabinet of ministers still in power. A cabinet that oversaw the transformation of Malta into a melting pot of corruption, criminality and treason of the highest order.

An assassinated journalist. Daphne Caruana Galizia. A case still far from resolved. Justice deliberately delayed. Justice deliberately denied.

A prime minister – Joseph Muscat – who received gifts from, and who consorted with, the alleged mastermind behind Daphne’s assassination.

The prime minister’s chief of staff – Keith Schembri – being investigated for complicity in the assassination, as well as a whole litany of other offences, and who consorted with the alleged mastermind behind Daphne’s assassination.

A deputy police commissioner, a governor on the board of the FIAU, Malta’s watchdog for economic crime – Silvio Valletta –  who allegedly leaked information about the investigation to, and who consorted with, the alleged mastermind behind Daphne’s assassination.

Institutions systematically captured, paralysed, emasculated.

But take courage friends. The situation may look bleak, hopeless.

But it is not. Far from it.

At the height of the Second World War, Churchill visited his old school Harrow, where he delivered a speech. The situation looked dire then too. The Germans had 4 times as many war planes as the British had, at a time when victory in war was becoming more and more dependent on air superiority.

Here’s what he told his audience:

never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never, -in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

It is true that we still have a long and difficult way ahead of us, but let us also not forget what we have achieved.

We have made civil society a national force to be reckoned with.

We have been instrumental in forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

We have been instrumental in forcing the resignation of his chief of staff and chief of schemes, Keith Schembri.

And they called us erbat iqtates. Amazing what erbat iqtates can do, no?

Going forward, here are two things we need to focus our energies on:

  1. Firstly, ensure that every story that our journalists expose or have exposed, are investigated. Every story that is not investigated increases the impunity in this country. Every story that is not investigated continues to dismantle law and order and the rule of law in this country. Every story that is not investigated puts our brave journalists increasingly at risk.
  2. Secondly, mobilise people. Democracy is being wiped out, slowly, surely. Our friends may not all be realising this, or its ramifications and the impact that it is having and that it will have on their lives. Remember. Democracy does not go out with a bang. An Armageddon. It goes out in tiny, sometimes imperceptible steps. Till one fine day it’s gone.

Don’t accept arguments like I’m not interested in politics. People confuse politics with petty partisanship. Politics is about the air we breathe, the education our children receive, the law and order in our streets, the justice in our courts….pretty much everything around us.

We have but one goal. Victory. Victory for justice, for rule of law, for democracy. Victory against corruption, crime and impunity. Victory whatever the cost may be.

We will be relentless, uncompromising, unyielding. We will go on to the end. We will not falter. We will never give up. We will never surrender. We will prevail.