Me and My Isolation: Loneliness and Mental Health in COVID-19

The current life in Melbourne is best described as a constant monitoring of new cases and new governmental policies, along with Isolation. While data and policies seem cold, distant and objective, loneliness is lived by individuals, and day in and day out we grow lonelier until it becomes a familiar friend.  

This is especially so for international students. Staying in our rented homes in Melbourne while far away from our hometown, we are experiencing a double isolation. The Victorian Government said ‘Staying Apart Keeps Us Together’, and I wonder how international students like myself are experiencing this staying-apart, and if it is possible for us to feel ‘together’. 

The quest started with myself. I am living alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne CBD while preparing for my milestone for PhD candidature. 

Isolation for me is not easy. 

Whenever I encounter difficulty in my studies, which is very often, I automatically turn around to find someone to talk to, like I used to do in the office when the campus was still open.

But there’s nothing around me except a bookshelf filled with books and journals, and four white walls which seem evermore dazzling.

I become extremely conscious of my heartbeat. Sometimes I feel cold sweat forming on my forehead. Other times I find myself struggling to breathe, as if drowning. 

I ask myself what has led to this loneliness and its accompanying depression and anxiety. 

The untouchable, unspeakable bonds between individuals play a crucial role. Even if no problems could be solved, it’s always soothing to have someone around. Isolation in lockdown has deprived me of those bonds. 

I reached out to other students, to hear about how they are coping in the situation.

Joy Fung is a first-year undergraduate student from Hong Kong, currently studying at Monash University. She has not been able to meet any of her classmates in person yet. 

“I feel so lonely and out of place. I was so excited about college life. But now I couldn’t go anywhere. I don’t even have any friends.” 

Although Joy currently lives with a roommate, she confided that the situation is still hard.

“Sometimes we argue with each other over small things. I mean it’s understandable. I fight with my mom all the time. But I know I’d always made up with my mom in the end. It’s different from being with a roommate.”

For Joy, these periodical conflicts added to her loneliness.

“Whenever I have arguments with my roommate I said to myself maybe I should just go back home and be done with it,” she sighed. 

Knowing that lockdown has been differently experienced, yet similarly hard, I searched for professional advice and help.

Daphne Konas is a Counselling Psychologist working at RMIT University. She agreed that the situation has been challenging especially for international students.

‘International students will be separated from their families for an uncertain period of time,’ she said. Not to mention the loneliness, the ‘emotional rollercoaster’ and the financial stress for many.

On the other hand, Konas reminded us that lockdown and isolation may well have their own silver lining.

‘Emotional and physical safety’ are the direct benefits, ‘as we don’t have to worry about becoming ill (unlike many other countries not in lockdown),’ she wrote to me. 

On a deeper level, isolation means that we have more time connecting with our inner self, which has been extremely hard in our network society prior to COVID outbreak.

Konas proposed that it’s a good time to ask ‘How can I connect with something that I am missing that will provide connection/contentment?’

Indeed, some students have committed to making the best out of this situation. 

Alex Yao, a Chinese student from Swinburne University of Technology told me that he has made good use of this time of studying-from-home. 

“I bought myself a guitar and practice every day,” he said, “I used to play when I was in high school. Now I finally get the time to pick it up again.”

Apart from that, Alex feels that the lockdown has given him an opportunity to know himself better.

“I also feel I have more time for self-reflection. It sounds creepy but I actually talk to myself from time to time. For me it’s a good way to know who I am and what I really want in life,” he said.

 Konas also provided some practical guidelines to connect with ourselves during this time. They were: 

1) Goal setting in lockdown (important to set goals for ourselves during this time, eg. passion project, reading, organizing or donating).

2) Creating a new routine is important (in lockdown) and trying to do the things we would still do normally (as much as possible)

3) Asking ourselves what have I lost? What have I gained? What do I need to pick up on? How am I travelling along with my loved ones? What do I do now? 

I myself started with setting a little goal for each day. Writing several paragraphs of my thesis every morning (be compassionate with myself when I have a bad day); reading one chapter of the book(s) that I have always been interested in every afternoon; going out for a walk before dinner; cleaning up the apartment once a week… 

I also learned to write down my streams of consciousness. They did not add up at first. But when I finished, they always proceeded to somewhere. An aspect of my life. My anxiety and aspirations. 

It seems to me that I have become closer to myself.

So, keeping apart may really bring us together. Not only through the knowledge that we are not alone in our isolation, but also through a better understanding and deeper connection with our inner selves.

If you are feeling down know someone who is, you can seek help through hotlines  such as Lifeline at 13 11 14, beyondblue at 1300 22 4636, and Headspace at 1800 650 980.

For LGBTQ individuals, you can contact QLife at 1800 184 527.

Students may also seek help from in-house university counsellors or helplines.

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