Struggling mentally during pandemic? Go through stages of grief, says expert

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 14 2020 12:12 AM

MANILA — A mental health expert on Tuesday advised Filipinos to go through the stages of grief in order to deal with the stresses and losses brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Benjamin Vista, chair of the Asian Hospital and Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry, said that while more people are now seeking help from specialists like him, “in many cases, it’s not a mental illness.”

He said many just need to find a way to deal with the stress of the pandemic and one way to do that is to embrace the unknown.

He added that the five stages of grief show how people deal with the changes happening in society.

The first step is shock and denial where people think that the virus does not affect them. Second is anger, like when people get mad when they are made to stay at home. The third step is bargaining, where they think things will be better if they do something temporarily like physical distance.

The fourth stage of grief is sadness when people wonder if the pandemic will ever end and finally, acceptance.

“What we want to do is to move into the final stage…acceptance and saying, alright this is happening, I have to figure out how to proceed,” Vista said during a forum organized by the Philippine College of Physicians. 

Vista said people should also anticipate grief over possible additional loses.

He said anticipatory grief can be unhealthy if people feel anxious and stressed.

“Is grief all that bad? A healthy journey from shock through acceptance actually makes us better persons, but it has to be a healthy journey,” he said.

Vista, also an associate professor at University of the Philippines College of Medicine, said people should learn to care for their minds and bodies by eating good food, getting enough sleep and being mindful of relationships. He said people should also allot a little “quiet time” per day to process thoughts and find balance.

But in order to embrace the unknown reality, Vista said people will have to add to more steps in the stages of grief, such as meaning and responsibility.

“We need to add meaning: How does this pandemic change the purpose of my life? And responsibility: What must I do to realize that purpose?” he said.

Vista said many people want to stay within their bubble or safe zone, rejecting change, but it hinders a person from adapting.

“We need to re-study our belief because we cannot stay in that bubble,” he said.

To move forward, he said people should acknowledge the negativity first.

“Don’t force the feelings to go away because that just adds to the pain. If you want to express your anger, cry a little bit, allow yourself to do that. Acknowledge these feelings one by one,” he said.

Next, is to be thankful to be alive.

Vista said people should then learn to adapt by looking at their own strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

He said people should also tap into their creativity, “look at the beautiful and appreciate. Bring back the capacity to imagine and have dreams.”

And finally, persist.

“You must keep your expectations realistic. You must keep reminding yourself of your own power as well as the limits of control,” Vista said. 

In the past months, mental health institutions offering free consultations said they have been receiving more calls due to anxiety caused by COVID-19.

Vista advised those listening on the forum on Tuesday to seek help and to communicate with their family. 

“Many people have come to consult me. They are now forced to stay for a long time with their spouse and they hate that for some reason,” he said, explaining how the quarantine has forced families to deal with each others’ attitudes.

“The first thing we need to work on is communicate with your family first.”

Vista also advised parents to deal with their adolescent children carefully. 

“Adolescence is a time of emotional upheaval. You need to be the calming presence there. Not to judge, not to call them names, not to punish them,” he said. 

Vista said adolescents should be allowed to communicate with friends online.

“You should not stop them from linking with their peer group,” he said. “It’s a psychological and neurological need for them.”

Those who need mental health support and assistance may call the NCMH Crisis Hotline at:
1) 0917-899-USAP (8727)
2) (02) 7-989-USAP
3) 1553 (landline-landline, toll-free)
The following article also has information on other groups offering free mental health consultations online or via phone: