Columnist Joanna Buoniconti: Prioritizing physical well-being over mental

Published: 1/26/2021 12:43:09 PM

The days are shorter, the nights are darker — and seasonal depression has taken on a whole new meaning this winter season, due to the isolation that many of us are experiencing in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to loved ones.

While the mental health effects of this new way of life have spared very few, for many within the disabled population it is not necessarily a new way of life.

But that doesn’t discount the fact that the past 10 months have been any easier for us to endure. Because they haven’t been.

One sentence that I often reiterate in my columns, is that I am no stranger to isolating during the winter months in a year untouched by COVID-19. However, the downright terrifying threat that the illness could take on my body has forced me as well as my mom and grandma, who are caring for me during this time, to take the term “isolating” to an extreme level.

Since I was 2 years old I have had nurses caring for me five days a week and several weeknights, so that my parents could go to work and do errands without the cumbersome process of dragging me along. Consequently, because of the virus, I have not had any nursing since March 13, 2020. This is largely due to the fact that I had nurses through a home care agency, and since I had three nurses at that point, they each had other clients and responsibilities which I couldn’t ask them to forego in order to continue taking care of me.

Therefore, in order to substantially lessen my risk for exposure, my mom and I made the decision that she would be my primary caregiver for the time being — not knowing, at the time, that it would still be very much raging 10 months later.

Now, I am incredibly fortunate to be able to have my mom and grandma as incredible support systems during this time. Because I am all too aware of the fact that many, who are in similar situations to mine, don’t have that luxury. But being able to have that isolation from others to preserve my physical health has taken a toll on my mental well-being in a lot of ways.

In not having caregivers, when I’m not in classes, a large portion of my daily social interaction has dwindled significantly to consist of being just my mom and grandma. During a non-COVID year, as long as a person is healthy and hasn’t been in close contact with anyone who has been sick, they are allowed in my house to visit with me. This rule may seem limiting to most, but it has allowed me to find a balance between my social life and my health, which is crucial for my emotional preservation. And I consistently yearn for the day when that becomes my reality, once more.

As a result of the significant void in my social interaction during these past two months, I have witnessed my mental health decline. Because the only safe way that I am currently able to visit with others is by sitting 6-feet away from them in my driveway or garage, and not being able to endure the frigid temperatures for long, my being able to visit with my friends has been reduced to video calls over FaceTime or Zoom a handful of times. Video chatting is undoubtedly a great tool, but as someone who is more accustomed than most to interacting with others through a screen, there is no substitute to seeing people face-to-face.

Furthermore, due to being disabled in general, there are only a select few of healthy coping mechanisms that we can rely on. Most of us can’t physically exercise, so we lose out on the endorphins that are released during those activities. We have to find creative ways to keep our mental health afloat, and all too often it comes down to a choice between our physical and mental well-being.

Catherine McEachern, a graduate student at UMass Amherst, who is diagnosed with both an autoimmune disorder and autism, has also felt some of the debilitating mental health effects during this time while being faced with prioritizing her physical health.

“Out of safety, I stay at home and only go to places I know are taking all COVID-19 precautions. However, if just one person violates those precautions, I immediately have to leave, isolate, and wait anxiously for COVID test results. I was never incredibly active socially, but I was always working and/or volunteering which brought me great joy and enough activity to keep my body healthy. ... I try to go on walks with my parents, but most of the time I feel too weak physically or emotionally. Throughout this pandemic, I have learned how much our minds and bodies are truly connected,” she says.

I’m hopeful that my life may return to some semblance to normal sometime soon when the vaccines are widely distributed. However, I have a feeling that prioritizing physical health over emotional is going to be a lasting effect that the disabled population is going to be left to cope with until it is safe for us to re-integrate into society, while the majority is out there living their lives.

And to put it bluntly, it is something that is far from fair.

Joanna Buoniconti is an English and journalism major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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