Surviving The Pandemic As A Hacker: Take Care Of Your Mental Health

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As we’ve looked at the subject of face masks in the first two parts of this series, our emphasis has been on a physical step to aid your chances of making it through the COVID-19 pandemic in one piece. But given that the upheaval caused by all the social changes enacted to protect the population are likely to leave an indelible mark on those who live through them, there are significant aspects of surviving all this that go beyond the physical.

This will be a once-in-a-lifetime event for many people, a significant number will find it traumatic in some way, and for many of those people there will be an immediate and then ongoing effect on mental health. If anyone is in doubt as to from what position this is coming, I count myself among that number.

The Pressure Of A Once In A Lifetime Event

Piccadilly Circus, London, during the COVID-19 lockdown. Normally this is packed.
Piccadilly Circus, London, during the COVID-19 lockdown. Normally this is packed. Kwh1050 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Different countries have placed their own public health restrictions on their populations, but it’s likely that many of you are in some form of lockdown situation, with social or communal¬† activities and locations closed or curtailed, going out restricted, and with all around you in the same situation. A perfect storm of having social outlets removed while simultaneously being stuck at home perhaps with family or housemates you’d prefer not to spend too much time with is not ideal. Add to that the multiple stresses from the pandemic itself as well as other news stories from our turbulent world, and it’s hardly a surprising that it’s taking a toll.

I'm almost at the point of forgettign which group uses which app, there are so many.
I’m almost at the point of forgetting which group uses which app, there are so many.

In my case, I found myself abruptly deprived of my main social outlets, as my hackerspace closed for the duration and my group of friends could no longer hang out. Living in the depths of the countryside as I do can be great in normal times, but being forbidden to leave my little part of it and seeing nobody else at all except my family members for a couple of months has given me a rough ride.

At first I dove into online meetings, and quickly amassed a pile of new apps for different services on my phone. But then the sheer number of social groups came to take up most of my evenings, I found I had little left to say, and gained a new source of stress lest I’d said the wrong thing, or not supported someone adequately, or looked like a fool. I’ve had an up-and-down existence these last couple of months, and the same worries can be found in whether I can find enough Hackaday stories to make up a month, or whether I taxed my car on time.

It’s OK, This Isn’t Normal

It’s crazy, finding oneself approaching burn-out when one should be having an easier time of it due to less of life’s normal stresses. But I suspect I’m not alone in this. I think my mistake was to expect that in extraordinary times I could continue on as normal, because while the world around us has gone a little crazy it’s all the same in my little office with its gently humming PC and oversized clacky keyboard.

Less of this...
Less of this…

If I have a takeaway from all this, it’s that what I needed to do was to recognise that this isn’t normal. It’s unreasonable to expect to be able to do things as before, even to be able to do more than before. I wasn’t having endless Jitsi and Zoom meetings before all this, in fact I didn’t even have either service. So why was I suddenly deeming myself able to be the life and soul of the party 24-7, and then chastising myself for being unable to live up to it?

And why was I surprised that feeding the ever-hungry maw of a continuous daily publication such as Hackaday was feeling so daunting? Few of us can be superhuman at the best of times, so perhaps we should all recognise that it’s OK to back off a little when things become too much. I found that backing away from the interactions helped me a load, and spreading out my Hackaday work also made it less intimidating.

...and more of this.
…and more of this.

Recognising my limits and cutting back on the things that were bringing me down may have restored some balance, but I am still cut off from my peers and in uncomfortable proximity to my family. In this I am indebted to a small network of friends with whom I’ve been in regular phone contact. Not Jitsi or Zoom, good old-fashioned phone. We talk, we help, we keep each other sane. I hope I have been as much help to them in this as they have to me.

Finally, The Rest Of You Have  A Part To Play Too

This has been my attempt to make sense of the pandemic as a mental health event, drawing on my own experiences. I’m not out of the wood yet, but I hope if you find yourself in a similar state then some of my coping strategies may be of help to you.

There is another side to this though, and it lies with those of you who aren’t suffering particularly from all this. Wow, I envy you! Some of you though maybe won’t realise that not everyone is like you, so now’s the time to consider this, and think before you speak and act around other people during this difficult time. If our community has an ugly side at times it can be that its culture can be unforgiving, and sometimes what may seem like a throwaway comment on a forum or social media to you could have a crushing effect on someone else. Part of us all getting through is making much more of an effort to be nice to one another, and thereby making ourselves a little better. Let’s do that.

Take care, and think about what you post, and if you see someone you know abruptly disappear, check up on them. Together, we will get through all this.