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Self-isolation and detention: are there parallels we can learn from?
 Niki Whitley

Niki Whitley

Self-isolation and detention: are there parallels we can learn from?

The impact that COVID-19 continues to have across the globe is unprecedented. A wealth of advice has been shared on how businesses can support themselves and their workforce – by maintaining business continuity, ensuring staff welfare from a duty of care perspective, and increasing resilience for what is to come. Supporting companies in this way is at the core of our work at AnotherDay. However, we also recognise that at the individual, human-factor level another layer of crisis has been occurring in parallel that should not be ignored.

More than half of the world’s population remains under some degree of movement restriction, including a range of lockdown measures. During widespread states of emergency the immediate focus is often on physical wellbeing. However, following on from Mental Health Awareness Week it is important to recognise and address the potential impact of lockdown and isolation on mental welfare. The majority of people will not have experienced anything like our current situation – our loss of ‘normality’ – before. All of us are fearful about our work, health, families, and our shared future. Some will sadly experience the loss of loved ones, some will endure a sense of loneliness in a way never previously experienced, and others have been thrown into close proximity with family, friends, or even those not well known to them when they are used to having their own space. Many have been furloughed or have lost their jobs and are experiencing a different sort of loss – of routine, of purpose, of a secure future.

The mental toll of such loss, of the imposed restrictions, and the continuous feed of news on the evolving situation is felt not only by those with a history of mental health issues but also by many for whom such feelings are completely unexpected and unfamiliar. However, there are universally shared patterns of mental processes and coping mechanisms that we as human beings draw on, both consciously and subconsciously, in a crisis situation and these can provide insight into both our individual and collective responses to the current situation.

The process of grief

According to the Kübler-Ross model of grief, humans pass through five stages, which can each be applied to our current situation:

Denial: An intellectual and emotional rejection of the situation. For example, “The pandemic is being blown out of proportion, it’s a media circus”.
Anger: In an attempt to gain control over our fears we can become hostile and blame others. For example, “If the government had acted sooner, we wouldn’t be in this situation”.
Bargaining: We start to acknowledge reality but are not yet ready to relinquish the illusion that we have control over the situation. For example, “I’ll be ok as long as I stay around people who are healthy”.
Despair: When reality fully sets in we may experience a sense of hopelessness and that all is lost. For example, “I can’t go to work or earn money. Soon I will lose my home”.
Acceptance: When we acknowledge and surrender to the facts we start to deal effectively with what is happening. For example, “Yes the world is going to change, but maybe when all this is over we will be kinder to one another”.

These stages are not linear – they are fluid, may occur in different orders, some people may experience variations of the same stage multiple times, and some may skip stages. Furthermore, symptoms of grief can present themselves physically, socially, and / or spiritually, including worry, crying, headaches, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, frustration, fatigue, aches and pains, anger, loss of appetite, feelings of detachment, and questioning of spiritual belief, among others.

Parallels and coping mechanisms

However, while the nature and widespread impact of COVID-19 is unique and unprecedented, there are nonetheless parallels in the mental processes connected to other forms of loss of freedoms that enable us to draw on well-documented coping mechanisms and techniques during this time.

While the underlying context is of course quite different, as well as the potential time periods, there are identifiable parallels to the experiences of those held in forced captivity. An individual detained by the state in a foreign country or the victim of a prolonged kidnapping or hostage situation will also experience an immediate and dramatic response to their loss of freedom and control over their daily lives. They must manage a high degree of anxiety and uncertainty, especially where the situation is novel and abruptly takes away everything that was ‘normal’ and ‘routine’. Their perception of time can be significantly affected. They may suffer feelings of loss at separation from loved ones or the death of other prisoners or hostages with whom they have developed a relationship. They may experience friction with other detainees or extensive periods of solitary confinement with little or no interaction with other human beings. Their experiences can also affect their relationships upon release and return to their former life after a period of separation.

Many individuals have reported using coping mechanisms consciously or subconsciously to support themselves through their time in captivity. These helped to keep their minds active, protect their mental and physical wellbeing, and prepare them for an eventual return to the ‘real world’ at an unknown point in the future. Some of the most common mechanisms and their application to the current situation are:

Building rapport: In the current lockdown, maintaining ‘rapport’ through ongoing communication with friends and family remains important. This may be via (video) calls with those outside your household but also by maintaining a positive environment with co-habitees. Talking to others about how you are feeling and coping with the current situation can also be very beneficial, and allowing yourself to forgive is a vital mechanism reported by those who have endured captivity.
Developing a daily routine: Routines – particularly for those who may no longer have the structure of employment – help to keep us motivated, give us a sense of purpose, and are a good way to anchor ourselves in the present through creating structure. A routine can also be crucial for preserving morale; it is an act of self-discipline that can provide a sense of control over an otherwise uncertain situation. This could start with making your bed in the morning, waking and going to sleep at regular times, reading, learning a new skill, studying, exercising, (virtual) socialising, creative activities, or writing a diary or blog, which can contribute to a grounded sense of time.
Staying physically fit: Exercise helps to maintain physical fitness as well as mental welfare by providing a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. It also provides access to much needed daylight as well as to our natural environment, which is believed to further benefit wellbeing.
Maintaining mental agility: To keep their brains active and minds stable and occupied, former hostages have reported writing books in their minds during incarceration, going over scuba diving theory, playing chess, and learning poems. Activities such as meditation are also well documented to support coping under times of stress.
Doing something creative: Creativity is often said to promote happiness and helps to alleviate boredom. This could include drawing, painting, learning a language or to play an instrument, refining cooking or sewing skills, or taking online yoga or dance lessons.
• Keeping yourself clean: Maintaining cleanliness during lockdown enables us to preserve a sense of personal dignity, mental wellbeing, and to be prepared for whatever we may need to do in our day (work video calls, going out for grocery shopping).

Ultimately, it is important to recognise how the current situation is impacting each of us as an individual and to draw on mechanisms to support ourselves. It is vital to acknowledge and be patient with ourselves that our personal return to ‘normal’ may take time and re-adjustment, and most importantly, that life as we once knew it may never be the same again.