Doctor speaks out about the mental toll of Covid-19 and now the unrest

It is difficult living with a mental illness. I know and own this truth confidently because I have journeyed and continue to journey with this reality for the past 20 years. This struggle is compounded by the presence of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

To further compound this sobering reality, I am on the front line striving to ensure the wellbeing of patients who are under my care and face me with hope and dependency despite my own struggles.

As doctors, there is a tacit expectation of martyrdom and self-denial by virtue of us taking the Hippocratic Oath. I still fondly recall my naïve and optimistic 24-year-old self, passionately and emphatically echoing the words of this sacred oath with little understanding nor comprehension of the full weight of the responsibility that I had undertaken. It was an honour to say it and it was equally exciting. I still mean those words.

Although I believe the work that I do is a calling and an honour, I refuse to fake omnipotence at the expense of my mental health. These unrealistic ambitions of being a superhero are running the risk of increased anxiety, manic episodes, depressive episodes, among other presentations. 

The cost is simply too high.  I am consciously choosing to detach myself and disengage from the pressure of pretending to be a demigod.

Being a South African doctor is a unique experience and presents a myriad of potential mental health difficulties. One of those glaring challenges is the reality of the consequences of socioeconomic ills, leading to unrest. 

Despite the life-threatening anarchy occurring in areas where we work, one is still expected to show up and replace fear and anxiety with warmth and enthusiasm. 

Both these dynamics, either individually or collectively, threaten to result in apathy, despondency and demotivation.

After the recent announcement of the harder lockdown, I found myself excessively fatigued and in a low mood. It took until the end of the week to realise that the highly necessary restrictions were taking their toll on me psychologically. 

The awareness of restricted movements coupled with increased health risk secondary to the third wave was starting to feel like a hostage situation. Fortunately I expressed my struggles with my support structure. I began to correlate my unexplained symptoms with lockdown fatigue and feelings of being overwhelmed by external expectations of being expected to cope despite immense pressures. 

Admitting to struggle is one of the bravest forms of confronting worse problems.

Despite all the risks presented by my work, I never cease to be humbled by the trust and efforts of patients who express their gratitude and acknowledgement of the hard work invested. It takes a simple “thank you for your service” to know that the often overlooked sentiments can brighten up the darkest days.

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Samke J Ngcobo
Dr Samke J. Ngcobo is a medical doctor working toward the day when mental illness is treated with the same respect as physical illness.She is the founder of thenon-profit organisation Sisters For Mental Health and Vocal Mentality

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