Dr Hazel Othello

Two female professionals in the Ministry of Health yesterday lauded women for breaking the stigma against mental health during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking on the CNC3’s The Morning Brew about their experiences in celebration of International Women’s Day, Dr Hazel Othello, Director of Mental Health in the Ministry of Health, said the pandemic had taught people lessons on how to keep their souls and minds together.

“The pandemic brought to light things that were there that we weren’t focusing on before and with COVID, being in the forefront of that fight for generations with a number of things that we have to balance in our lives, family, work, all sorts of challenges that comes our way, some situations dealing with the bad, the gender issues and so on, even taking care of our own mental health.

“We have been doing that for generations and we have been struggling at times and some has coped better than others but what has happened with COVID, is that it has been brought to the fore, so people are now more focused on issues surrounding mental health more than ever,” Othello said

Othello said people have been forced to think about their mental health in a very different way because of the tremendous impact on mental health of the pandemic. This mode of engagement, she said, did not exist before the pandemic.

“I don’t think that we had so much media engagement in this country and internationally. The average person on the street would not stop me and ask me a question about mental health. If I saw someone on the street I would talk to them but deliberately avoid talking to them about mental health … a lot of that is changing now, they are becoming open and more willing to talk and willing to become more vulnerable in our disclosures,” Othello said.

“Just Saturday I spoke to one of my best friends who went through a tremendous challenge with regards to mental health and she felt able to be vulnerable and share in our webinar something she would have never done before … it allowed transparency and discussion that would benefit us on our way forward.”

She added, “It is more of a positive response, people are more aware of a lot more issues now. In addition, people are speaking out against the stigma against mental health. Now people are willing to take all recommended steps to keep themselves safe and reduce stress on themselves and their families.”

Principal Medical Officer at the Ministry of Health Dr Maryam Abdool-Richards, who has been one of the ministry’s key voices during the pandemic, said she believes COVID-19 and the national response was and is a challenge for all.

“We had to have a paradigm shift in our thinking, our actions and the way we manage issues and challenges at the Ministry of Health and all other ministries, even in the private sector. Change tends to move us forward not just individuals but as a society and I believe that we actually saw this to a great extent in terms of the COVID mitigation plan,” Abdool-Richards said.

“I saw change personally as an opportunity. Change is not always comfortable and there is a saying that goes ‘a little discomfort for the soul can really assist us’ and for me, personally, with the challenges that I saw, both at a professional and a personal level, we are still tired and tend to be overwhelmed at some points.”

She added, “I looked at it as an opportunity that arose from adversity, so the sort of learnings that came out of this experience went beyond technical skills with regards to epidemiology and numbers and the personal learnings were really being able to understand the perspective of others, communicating clearly in a transparent manner, managing persons who were demotivated with a level of tact and diplomacy, mental resilience and one of my mentors – respond but don’t react in conflict, to think about the positions of other persons and the best outcome and respond calmly.”

Abdool-Richards also said the population was now taking more care of their health due to the pandemic concern.

“There’s the evidence in the COVID mitigation plans to educate, empower and encourage persons to do activities like properly wearing masks and sanitising. The level of personal responsibility with respect to health took care of families. It has alerted people in a health manner in terms of protecting their health and promoting a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their children.”