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Don’t let self-isolation become emotional desolation

Friday 27, Mar 2020

There’s a beautiful hashtag doing the rounds on social media right now: #apartbuttogether. It succinctly expresses how so many of us are feeling as we tread through the fog of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

It all feels so strange. Terms like social distancing, self-isolation and lockdown have infected our everyday language and now dominate our thinking, putting us all on edge, unsure about what it all means. Very few of us have ever experienced anything like this.  

It’s crucial, however, that we don’t begin to feel estranged. Self-isolation shouldn’t mean social isolation. Social distancing shouldn’t become emotional desolation. We can’t let this viral pandemic become a mental health one.

We need to stay connected. We need to keep communicating. We need to be kind to ourselves and each other. 

I have distant memories as a child of being dragged to the phone to speak to relatives in Greece. I would shyly say hello across a crackling international phone line to people I only knew from black and white photos. I was self-conscious about my Greek. I was never quite sure what to say. 
But I knew it meant the world to my parents. Hearing a voice made them feel connected to the world they had left behind. It was a heart line to their loved ones.

My father raised me to respect and honour family, friends and community. If he could not be there in the flesh for a friend or family member, he would be there on the phone. He understood the importance of belonging to a community, both his new one here in his adopted homeland and the old one half a world away. 

This sense of respect, honour and community is encapsulated in an extraordinary Greek word: philotimo. The former US President Barack Obama sums up philotimo beautifully: 

“In all of our communities, I still believe there’s more of what Greeks call philotimo—love, and respect, and kindness for family and community and country, and a sense that we’re all in this together, with obligations to each other. Philotimo—I see it every day, and that gives me hope.”

Philotimo guides my being. It underpins everything in my life and all that I do. I turn to it as a source of strength. We need philotimo now more than ever.

We might be stuck at home in self-isolation, but we should never feel alone. We might not be in the same room, but we can still talk, laugh and cry together. We can discuss our hopes and fears. Get deep and meaningful.

Pick up the phone. Skype. Zoom. FaceTime. Whatever you like best. We are so lucky to have the technology that enables us to remain connected to the people we love, as opposed to even 10 years ago.

Schedule and prioritise regular and frequent video calls with your colleagues and clients. Hearing a voice, seeing a face will mean so much more than an email. Show kindness.

Check-in with the vulnerable. Keep in touch with those you know have struggled with mental health issues. Share a joke, listen to their problems. The immensity of what we’re going through will leave many feeling hopeless, potentially triggering a downward spiral into despair, depression and worse. Reach out to them.

Many people live on their own. Their social lives may have revolved around work, social gatherings, going to the gym, book clubs or church. Don’t forget them. Be with them. 

Look out for the elderly. Many already struggle with loneliness and isolation, a problem the current crisis will exacerbate. Observe all the advice on safe distancing, but ask if they need help with groceries, meals, prescriptions or anything else. Talk with them.

Use social media for the power of good: share reliable information, funny memes and cat videos. Watch live streams of musicians and other performers. If you’re in a position to do so, reward their efforts with a monetary contribution. Share love, not hate. 

As individuals and as a society, we’re all in this #apartbuttogether. Throw your heart lines out to all those around you, including the most vulnerable who need our help now more than ever. Believe in the power of philotimo. We will get through this, together.

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone about mental health, the Beyond Blue Support Service offers short term counselling and referrals by phone and webchat on 1300 22 4636.

Beyond Blue link for COVID-19 specific information:
https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak
Beyond Blue support services (which includes call / web-chat / email support / forums): https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/get-immediate-support