The unbearable sadness of lockdown

Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being includes the following sentiment: “For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

With so many lives lost, and individual lives and livelihoods in the balance, we may find ourselves incapacitated by compassion for those around us who suffer. We’ve heard of men feeling sympathetic morning sickness when their partners are pregnant. Since the pandemic-enforced lockdown, you may have found yourself checking your temperature or worrying about a tight chest after coming home from an essential shopping trip. “Did I get the virus? Am I infected?”

Feeling foolish about this normal reaction denies the tangible effects that living through the pandemic and lockdown have on our mental health.

The Covid-19 period is a lonely time. Loneliness wears away at our morale, resilience, will, ability to strive and achieve. It can seem like a hopeless hole that, like a magnifying glass, increases our anxieties, depressions, fears or thoughts of suicide. Thousands of people yearn for help — among them thousands of students and young people concerned about where their lives are headed. This should be the time, they think, to study, graduate, become a breadwinner. But doubt seeps in and with it mental ill-health. 

It can also translate into recklessness, especially in young people, who may feel a sense of “throw caution to the wind, you only live once”. After all, Covid-19 has little or no bearing on them.

The lockdown has tangibly changed conditions for those in higher education. With whom can students share their problems if they are alone at home or in their residence? 

Being cognisant of these issues has prompted student health agency Higher Health to amplify and fast-track its interventions that help students and staff in the post-school sector manage mental health challenges and support their mental wellness.

Whose shoes are you wearing today?

Put yourself in the shoes of the first-year students who were looking forward to starting their lives away from home, possibly making their own decisions for the first time, and hoping to make new friends. Or slip into the shoes of the final-year students planning their careers, mapping out their next steps. It’s as though someone pressed the pause button, forcing everything to be  placed on hold. When some students have returned to campus, they have encountered an environment that looks nothing like the place that they once knew — no matter how briefly. And it may never look the same again.

Young people are grieving for what they lost because of Covid-19. This was going to be the year of #TwentyPlenty. The loss of their expectations feels almost visceral. 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) has seen calls to its helpline double since the start of the lockdown, and has received up to 1 400 cries for help a day.

The World Health Organisation and local experts have called for authorities to prioritise mental health as the wellbeing of whole societies has been severely impacted by the pandemic.

After all, physical and psychological health go together. 

With the guidance of the department of higher education and training and support from Sadag, Higher Health mapped the mental health and substance abuse priorities related to Covid-19 among students. A tailor-made three-tier programme considers why and how students and staff may be impacted and how to assist individuals who experience problems. 

Holistic three-tiered approach

At the primary level, Higher Health’s student-led peer-to-peer programme creates awareness and introduces initiatives to increase psychological resilience and to recognise and reduce anxiety, stress and depression and prevent suicide. It consists of peer-based counselling, mental health self-risk assessments and various communication initiatives. 

The secondary level entails a Higher Health 24-hour toll-free student and staff helpline, run in alliance with Sadag, which provides free telephonic and SMS counselling, crisis intervention and support, and referrals to mental health professionals and other psychosocial resources to students and staff across all campuses, in 11 official languages. Higher Health can also assist individual institutions with capacity-building and implementation.

At a tertiary level, Higher Health has appointed 10 additional clinical psychologists who will work across the country.

The hope is that together, we can carry the unbearable load.

How to access the Higher Health 24-hour student helpline:

  • Toll-free call 0800 36 36 36
  • SMS 43336

Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia is a medical doctor with an MBA and PhD in public health and is the chief executive of Higher Health. 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Ramneek Ahluwalia
Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia is chief executive of Higher Health SA, a registered medical practitioner with the national medical councils of India, Mauritius and South Africa. He is a physician with clinical and allied health care management experience, and holds an MBA and PhD in public health

Related stories


Subscribers only

Zuma tells ANC top six not to hold their breath

Former president Jacob Zuma will only meet ANC leaders if deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo recuses himself from the state capture commission

‘Captured’ water utility exec holes up

Thami Hlongwa seems to be in hiding after a blacklisted technology company scored millions from Umgeni Water and the owner was murdered

More top stories

The private-sector players who facilitated public-sector fraud

Let us never forget the private-sector players who facilitated public-sector fraud

Pregnant women should be vaccinated, doctors say

New research shows that there has been an increase in maternal deaths during the Covid-19 restriction

Simeone is Atlético’s secret weapon

El Cholo remains true to himself — consistent, totally committed and prepared to graft — and these values are retained by the team

Eight things you need to know about the vaccine rollout

About 80 000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccine have arrived in South Africa out of the nine million procured — 300 000 to 500 000 are expected to arrive within two months

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…