[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Chang Yoon-seon, is a 36-year-old stay-at-home mother living in Gimpo, Gyeonggi. In her neighborhood, she’s called “super nanny” by other moms for her professional-like approach when it comes to child rearing. Chang also considered herself a positive person and a mother with great patience.
But now, more than seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, she’s yelled at her daughter, “I don’t know how many times.”
Raising her voice and losing her temper were rare occurrences for Chang before the pandemic.
It all started in February when her daughter was forced to stay home from kindergarten due to social distancing restrictions. Usually Chang spent her mornings alone, cleaning her home and preparing a snack for when her daughter returned from school.
But now she spends her entire day with her energetic five-year-old, preparing three meals a day, home-schooling her and cleaning up. Chang says it's left her feeling like “there’s no more Yoon-seon, if you know what I mean.”
“It feels like time has stopped since February and that I, as a human being, do not exist,” she said.
“I felt so depressed I wanted to get rid of that feeling by trying to do something else but it doesn’t seem to go away. I feel so bad yelling at my daughter and then I feel guilty. I feel sorry for her as well about having to deal with this situation.”
The situation was exacerbated when her husband had to quarantine himself at home for two days in the master bedroom, which happened “twice.”
According to Chang, her husband had meetings with clients who had to take Covid-19 tests and until they got the results, he could not come into contact with the other members of the household.
“Just thinking about the possibility of him bringing the virus into our home and infecting me and my daughter made me become very prickly and super sensitive,” she said.
“I mean, taking my daughter out for a walk to get some fresh air gets me all tensed up because she touches so many things and runs around and tries to hug everybody. I sacrifice so many things to stay home and look who’s about to bring the virus into the house. I think it’s only a matter of time.”
Chang even contracted shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful rash, recently for the first time in her life. While stress doesn't cause shingles, it does weaken the immune system, making a person more susceptible to the virus.
“Honestly, I’ve never told anyone this, but I drank every night after putting my daughter to sleep, for several months,” she said. “I felt my health deteriorating but I couldn’t help it. I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. Then I contracted shingles and realized I need to stop this.”
Many stay-at-home moms who share similar stories with Chang have been turning to online forums to vent their frustrations and share their feelings. By doing so, Chang and many other mothers have realized their kids haven't turned into monsters during the pandemic — it’s the lack of human contact that’s causing them to act out.
“Many mothers were sharing similar stories and I could feel that I was relieving some of my stress as well by talking to them,” Chang said.
Chang says her main source to de-stress had been her daily coffee breaks when she would meet up with her friends for at least one or two hours after sending her daughter to kindergarten.
“That’s how I had been beating my stress and with that gone, I just couldn’t bear it I guess,” she added.
As people around the world practice social distancing and self-isolation to curb the further spread of the coronavirus, an increasing number have been showing signs of rage, anxiety and depression — the side effects of isolation, according to experts.
Advances in technology have certainly eased the transition, allowing employees to work from home, schools to hold online classes and friends and families to meet virtually.
But can we really live without human contact?
Psychotherapists say that lack of human contact and human touch can impact people on a psychological and physical level — more than we might realize.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare released the findings of a series of surveys conducted by the Korean Society of Traumatic Stress Studies on Oct. 16, which show that Koreans are growing more and more depressed as the coronavirus progresses.
What should be regarded as serious here, according to the Health Ministry, is the high figure shown for “suicidal thoughts,” which reached double digits for the first time in decades.
According to data in 2018, 4.7 percent of Korean adults answered that they had had suicidal thoughts. However, the figure reached 9.4 percent in March, 10.1 percent in May and 13.8 percent in September.
The number of depression counselling sessions the ministry conducted from Jan. 29 to Sept. 14 reached 448,867, which already surpassed last year’s total number of counselling sessions, which was 343,185.
Another study conducted by the Korea Health Promotion Institute, which was released on Oct. 14, reveals that four out of 10 Koreans have experienced some sort of depression and anxiety due to the coronavirus. Among the respondents, 40.7 percent said that they have felt or are currently feeling depressed, and cited the major reason as feeling “socially isolated.” Studies also revealed that women are more prone to the feelings of melancholy and loneliness that trigger depression. The survey questioned 1,031 Koreans aged between 20 to 65.
Experts insist that the country shouldn't delay executing mental health preventive measures any longer.
“This pandemic situation is being prolonged and this means more isolation for the people,” said Kwak Keum-joo, professor of psychology at Seoul National University. “People are becoming more and more prone to being affected by the emotions of others during this pandemic and this is called ‘emotional contagion.' We are on the verge of having a collective depression and such figures will skyrocket if no proper preventive measures are executed.”
Can digital technology be a substitute for human contact?
With the warning light flickering in regards to society's mental health, many experts have suggested the use of advanced digital communication systems to “stay connected.”
Although smartphones and various programs today can virtually connect anyone anywhere in the world, there are some people who still find it difficult to adjust.
Sixty-five-year-old Shin Young-ok is a psychology consultant who took a written test in the spring this year to obtain Level 2 certification of psychology counselling provided by the Korea Psychology Counselling Association. After passing the written test, she was preparing for an interview, which was scheduled to be held face to face in August. However, due to the coronavirus, the interview got moved to Oct. 24 and she was informed that it would be conducted over Zoom — something she's never even heard of before.
“I got an e-mail telling me how to create an account for Zoom and how to log on to do the test a few weeks prior, but I just couldn’t do it,” said Shin. “I followed the steps exactly as it said but it wouldn’t go onto the next step. The association told me to change the name that appears on Zoom and I didn’t know where to click.”
Shin said she asked her daughter living in the United States to help her out, which turned into a “huge fight.”
“It was just impossible for her to help me over the phone,” Shin said. “And then we both got irritated and then she started being so cranky and I started yelling. It was so stressful and I felt miserable and old because I did not get it.”
The association notified Shin that if something goes wrong during the Zoom interview, such as problems with the microphone or camera, that the interviewee would be disqualified. This made Shin even more anxious as the test is only held once a year.
Shin said she was also planning to visit her daughter in the United States, who is expecting her second child this month, after completing the exam in August. But with everything delayed and the quarrelling, she says she felt depression ruling over her feelings.
“Since I’m a psychology consultant, I tried to control my emotions and I know I can cope a lot better than others,” said Shin. “It would be so much more difficult for others and telling them simply to use Zoom or whatever to stay connected, I don’t think it helps.”
Shin said several counselling centers she’s registered with also asked her if she can hold virtual counselling sessions.
“I turned them down,” she said. “I’m just sick of doing everything online. Even if I have to speak with a mask on with a transparent panel between us, I would rather go and meet face to face,” Shin said.
For Park Jeong-ran, a 90-year-old who lives in Yeongcheon, North Gyeongsang, this year's Chuseok holiday was unlike any other. Instead of a visit from her son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters, a welfare worker came to her door. With the welfare worker’s help, she was able to make a video call to her son and his family.
Park’s granddaughter Jeong So-ri, 30, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that her grandmother smiled and said it was all right for them not to visit, but that she felt bad and because her grandmother couldn’t really hear them over the phone, the call ended very quickly.
“I don’t think she was amused by the technology or even happy to see us virtually,” Jeong said. “She looked worried and said she hoped she would still be alive when we visit next time.”
It’s not only the older generations experiencing cyber fatigue.
Kim Mi-hyun, 37, who works for an international pharmaceutical company as a statistician has been working from home since March. She said the number of online conference calls has increased greatly, which “evidently wastes a lot of time.”
“Issues that can be addressed by just talking to colleagues by going over to his or her desk in the office, now have to be done online, which means I have to set up a call and write meeting minutes,” said Kim. “It’s also difficult to keep my two-year-old baby and my dog from coming into my room while I’m on a video call. They keep crying, barking and banging the door that oftentimes, I try to fool them that I’m going to the office and quietly go into my study room. I can fool my baby but not my dog.”
Kim says she feels “lonely” as she’s now at home all week long. She also rarely goes out over the weekends to limit physical contact with others, fearing that her young child may contract the virus.
“I feel like I have no one to talk to and I am evidently deprived of social connections,” she said. “I’m always at home, stuck with my own thoughts. My husband recommended that I visit a counsellor, but even that costs a lot and it makes me miserable.”
Kim said she's also concerned about her grandmother, who is currently in a nursing home in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi. The nursing home told her that she should not come and visit. Even if she did, she could only see her grandmother for one or two minutes in the entrance through a glass door without coming in.
“When I go see her, we're usually very tactile because she can't hear me very well," said Kim. “So because we're not able to touch, I didn’t want to put other elderly people in danger by even attempting to go there or to my grandmother, who usually stays in bed. To come and see me, she would have to be moved to a wheelchair, and it would be really tiresome for her. I’m just so worried for people in the at-risk age group. For them, advancements in technology are good for nothing.”
Witnessing the increase in the number of people suffering from depression during the prolonged outbreak of Covid-19, which Koreans have dubbed as the “Corona blues,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo announced recently that “the government will come up with a basic plan for the public’s mental health welfare by reflecting on the outcomes of various research and studies on mental health diseases caused during the coronavirus.”
Psychotherapists argue that the preventive measures to fight the “Corona blues” must come promptly and target society as a whole.
“The Korean government was hailed by the world for effectively handling the Covid-19 outbreak but at the same time, it’s true that it has failed to look after those in vulnerable social groups like the elderly and the disabled,” said Professor Kwak. “Because many measures are for the masses, such vulnerable people were inevitably unable to receive help firsthand. But such mental health diseases are more deadly to those groups of people.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]