'The coronavirus crashed head-on with our crisis of toxic loneliness. We need a systemic solution,' writes Zama Ndlovu.
About five weeks into lockdown, I found myself feeling socially dislocated and emotionally distressed. I did not understand the source of my discomfort. After all, I have lived alone for most of my post-graduate years, so physical distancing was not a significant change. I have mostly lived in solitude; I have sometimes lived in loneliness. Sometimes, the dark clouds gather, leaving me feeling as though life is contracting around me. In those times, I am empty and wholly disempowered as though I have lost my life, though I have not died.
Knowing the devastating costs of isolation intimately, I set about implementing a supportive structure of weekly video call check-ins with friends and family to make sure that I could feel connected during the lockdown period. Having taken so much care, I could not understand the incessant feeling of dislocation.
Every human being needs strong social bonds to thrive. We need to know that we belong somewhere and that we have supportive relationships to lean on when we face challenges. These social bonds help us to be more resilient and adaptable during times of hardship.
Nurturing intimate bonds is a scientifically-backed approach to cultivating happiness and wellbeing. In his 2015 TedTalk titled "What makes a good life?" Harvard Medical School professor, Robert Waldinger described the results of The Harvard Study of Adult Development. The 80-year-old longitudinal study, which has followed 724 men (and later added women) since the Great Depression, has made three important findings regarding the link between connectedness and health. First, the study finds that socially connected people are physically healthier and live longer. At the same time "loneliness turns out to be toxic", leading to earlier physical decline. Secondly, it's not the quantity but the quality of one's relationships that matter. Lastly, healthy connections are good for both the body and the mind. According to the findings, people in stronger relationships are more likely to have sharper memories in old age.
But despite following this and other doctors' orders, I still felt displaced. I knew I was loved and supported. I spoke to my mother, sister and friends more often than I had in the months leading to the lockdown. But still, I felt as though I was not occupying my rightful spot in the world.
Upon closer inspection, I identified three possible sources of my dislocation.
First, I started a new career in this crisis. I was interviewed and on-boarded virtually. The practicalities were seamless, but it soon became clear to me that there were human interactions that were missing. It is challenging to cultivate a sense of belonging when your only point of connection is Outlook, Slack and Zoom. The informal ways through which we learn and bond – the coffee chats, our desk neighbours, the informal meetings we are pulled in – are no longer there. Instead, every interaction can feel like another interview, and the anxiety of impressing doesn't quite go away.
"The second possible source of my dislocation was my inability to be fully present in the lives of those I love."
The second possible source of my dislocation was my inability to be fully present in the lives of those I love. A friend had a baby a few weeks into lockdown. I have tried to stay connected via WhatsApp, but I know this is grossly inadequate for a new mother. It might even be distracting. I want so desperately to meet the little one and to help my friend with what she needs. I want to be there. But all I can offer are messages of empty offers that can barely fulfil while visitations remain illegal.
The third source was death. During the lockdown, the only forms of support I could offer were phone calls and money. But in times of acute grief, asking the bereaved to explain the same things over and over, felt like administering some form of torture. Physical presence is the most powerful means of communicating compassion and solidarity. It allows us to be fully present without burdening the bereaved. The silent spaces in physical presence have so much more capacity to hold comfort than words.
Upon realizing that I craved physical connection, I tried to take some symbolic actions to close the distance-gap I felt. I took the opportunity to visit the office, and that gave me a sense of connectedness with my new professional home. However, physical distancing continues to limit my humanity. Technology may help, but some of our emotional needs can only be nourished through physical proximity. This is an invisible part of our existence that has held us together, under-appreciated.
In the two years preceding the crisis, the global conversation on the growing mental health crisis had begun to gain traction. In 2018, the Lancet Commission report on global mental health and sustainable development estimated that mental health disorders could cost the global community as much as $16 trillion in the period 2010-2030. The report catapulted the discussion to centre stage at the World Economic Forum 2019 Annual meeting in Davos. While this development was a significant leap in the discussion about mental health, by purely focusing on the workplace, the conversation continues to detach the workplace from broader society. This presents a risk that mental health interventions may be too focused on the employed, leaving the growing population of unemployed people without adequate assistance. By making mental health mainly about excessive stress and not also about connection, this focus may also only validate mental illnesses triggered mainly in the workplace.
This pandemic offers us a chance to reflect on what it means to be human, and what we need to be healthy - physically, mentally and emotionally. While most periods of mental distress are experienced individually, in smaller groups, and occasionally as nations; right now, the global community is experiencing distress collectively. How can we use this moment to become more appreciative of the complexities of mental wellness?
"How can we use this moment to become more appreciative of the complexities of mental wellness?"
All around the world human beings have been forced into inhumane circumstances. Children are watching their parents' burials over the internet and families are unable to visit their dying loved ones. People are dying alone. And billions of others have to choose between starvation or risking themselves and their families. Those who survive will retain these scars in their veins and will pass them on to the coming generations. We need systemic answers, blogs on meditation won't do.
It is not just how we work that must be reconsidered. It is how we live and how we heal. We are in multiple crises because of the selective legitimization of human experience. To end these dog days, we must go back to the fundamental question – what makes a good life for the individual and the collective? How do we build a society that can restore us wholly after periods of sickness and distress? Now is the time to find answers that are about society, and not just the economy.
Zama Ndlovu is a writer, author and communicator. She has worked on various programmes on youth and enterprise development skills development, coaching, training facilitation and co-founded the youth policy think tank, Youth Lab.