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Shout out to the ladies – take special care of your mental health during this pandemic

As Women’s month for 2021 comes to an end, we think of all those special women in our lives. Unfortunately, many of them are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to mental health.

CARE International conducted research with more than 10,000 participants’ views on the challenges faced by women during COVID-19. The study found that 27% of women reported an increase in challenges associated with mental illness, compared to only 10% of men[1].

It seems that while pandemic-related stress affects nearly everyone, the impact on women is more intense.

The heavy toll on women's mental health makes intuitive sense if we think about the many women who have had to give up their jobs to care for children, or other family members affected by Covid-19, during lockdown.

Job loss in itself is a mental health stressor with the American Psychological Association reporting that unemployment is known to negatively impact depression, anxiety, and loss of life satisfaction[2].

Dr Ntuthuko Bhengu, founder of Alchemy Health Technologies, says women are facing increased child-care responsibilities, economic uncertainty in jobs that have lower salaries, and increased gender-based violence. Plus, the sectors that women often work in have been disproportionately impacted by a rise in job losses brought about by the pandemic and lockdown.

According to the South African National Income Dynamics Study (NICD) Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM) survey, women in South Africa have been particularly hard hit by job losses due to the pandemic. Relative to men, they were much more likely to lose their jobs during the initial strict lockdown phase, and recovery has been slower as the economy starts to reopen. Plus, women were less likely than men to benefit from the COVID-specific government income support measures put in place to help cushion the blow to unemployed and furloughed workers3.

Pregnant women or those experiencing intimate partner violence are especially at high risk for mental health problems during the pandemic. And the over 40% of South African women (around 7.2 million) who are single and heading their households deal with tremendous mental health stressors4 as they usually have very little if any, external financial or emotional support. It’s therefore not surprising that according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), up to 70% of those suffering from depression are women.

Some simple tips for taking care of your mental health

While some stressors like job loss are out of your control, there are some things within your control that you can do to look after your mental health.

· Working from home? Create a dedicated space for work. Stick to your workspace and try to keep work out of other spaces. This will help separate work from other aspects of your life.

· Set a balanced schedule between work and other commitments. Working from home often tempts us to work longer hours. Call it a day when work hours are up.

· Take regular time-out to allow your brain and body to relax. A 15-minute walk or a catch-up with a loved one on Whatsapp or the phone will boost your productivity levels and ability to focus.

· Don’t let financial matters fester and trigger feelings that your finances are out of control. If you’re drowning in debt, talk to a debt counsellor. If you’re employed, your company or retirement fund may offer an employee assistance programme with financial counselling.

· If you’re feeling lonely or isolated, use group chats on your mobile or PC to stay connected.

· Being exposed to large volumes of negative information can increase your anxiety, especially if it’s sensational fake news. Get information from reputable sources, like the World Health Organisation website.

· Stay physically healthy. Don’t allow fears of Covid infection to keep you away from preventative health checks or going to a doctor. Use livestreams or app-based workouts to exercise safely at home. This will also help you get a good sleep, which is really important for good mental health.

· Get vaccinated. While this does not replace the need to continue practising safe Covid-19 behaviour, it will provide peace-of-mind that if you do get Covid, you’re less likely to have complications or serious disease.

Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out if you are feeling stressed, anxious, depressed and need help. Many employers offer employee assistance programmes, which includes professional counselling to help employees deal with mental, emotional and financial health stressors. SADAG also offers free telephonic counselling, support, information and nationwide referrals to support groups, psychologists and psychiatrists.

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