In this installment of Our Stories, Guidance Counsellor Orlando Brown shares how he established a clear structure to cope with the mental exhaustion of the pandemic… For many people, Jamaica is pictured as an island paradise – white sandy beaches, a beautiful and vivacious culture, rich and wholesome food and attractive people. And while that image is not far from the truth, if the lens are focused on the inspirational stories of ordinary Jamaicans, you would find a sharper, richer and truer image of the Jamaican experience… this is Our Stories!

Meet Orlando Brown – primary school guidance counsellor, master’s student and university tutor

Orlando ensuring that he observes COVID-19 protocols by wearing a mask while out in public

Like many persons, Orlando is used to having a balanced and well-structured schedule in his daily life. However, with the arrival of COVID-19 to Jamaican soil, this balance and structure was disrupted. Orlando explains that he was in preparation mode for the virus and what life has been like since it has been here. He shares the readjustments he had to make for work and school, given the remote medium that both transitioned to. Additionally, Orlando mentions the mental challenges he experienced academically and the financial challenges he encountered with having to be home all day, every day as a result of COVID. Nevertheless, Orlando shares the different ways or things he engaged in to cope during this time.

Here is what Orlando had to say when he was interviewed about how life has been, since COVID-19:

What was your reaction when news broke that COVID-19 was now on Jamaican soil?

Uhmmm … to be honest, you know when you expect something to happen? And you’re just basically waiting for it to materialise? Yea … so, when I heard that COVID was here I was just like ‘I knew it was going to happen’.  Because, when you look around with what was going on in other countries in the world, cases were rising in China, Europe and it was really bad in Italy. But, when it reached America now, I expected it to eventually reach Jamaica because when America sneeze, we catch cold. So, when the first case came out and we were made aware of the person’s travel history and where they went since being on the island, I expected more cases to come from it and was like ‘what do we do next?’.

Okay so, since you were expecting the virus to reach our borders, what did you do to prepare?

Well, I actually started to buy my masks early and hand sanitizer and alcohol as well. So, I had those stuff bought in advance just to be precautious and uhmmm … what else? Oh yes, I stocked up on my vitamins and lucky enough that I did that because trust me, vitamins were becoming scare during this time.

Given your preparation, did you have any fears of COVID coming to Jamaica?

No, because since I was already in that state of preparation and also realized that we weren’t closing our borders like how other countries were, I said that the virus was bound to reach here. Cause if you look at it, other Caribbean countries took the initiative to close their borders once the virus was active enough in the region, but we never closed our borders till maybe April … and well do the Maths. Is from last year COVID deh bout and we saw cases arising in the US from January, February and we had our first case in March … Why did it take two months for us to close our borders?

Did you have any concerns since it took so long for our borders to be closed?

My concerns were mainly that the cases were going to increase, which it did … and not only that too, but the possible repercussions it would have on the healthcare system.

Do you have any fears about contracting the virus?

Um with how I … well what I did and still do, is stay in for the most part unless I absolutely have to go somewhere.  I mean, it’s a 50/50 thing. You’re always going to have that fear of being in public and I found that when I was in public, it was other persons not observing COVID protocols like not wearing their masks or social distancing … so yea, the fear is there for me and it’s not that I am afraid of not being protected but I am more concerned with the fact that people could be putting me and others at risk by not being responsible.

 Okay, I understand. So, how has life been for you since COVID has been here?

Uhh, life has shifted basically in terms of the fact that I am someone who is very on the go and before COVID I was and still am doing a full-time and part-time job and a master’s too. That means that I would be out for most of the day. So, imagine with COVID you have to be home 24/7 unless you are going out to buy groceries or to go in to work for whatever reason. But, apart from that, I was home. Also, I found for me that at first, I was okay staying home for the first 2-3 weeks because I didn’t have to worry about getting to and from both school and work since we were going to go remote. So, yea, the first month wasn’t so bad but it really started to get to me when April came in and we had to start doing the readjustments in terms of starting back classes online and also with me having to get back in to tutor mode for my students. That’s where it became very tricky because I don’t feel as though I learn best online because I am a face to face learner and a face to face teacher too. So, I found that my energy was definitely off. Weight gain came in and more money was being spent from being home all the time and needing to restock on food and other necessities.

Alright well, how have your social habits changed in readjusting to all of this?

I mean I am very conscious of COVID, so right now I don’t travel by public transportation but instead, I would call a private cab to get to and from school or work to practice the whole notion of social distancing. So, I switched the whole dynamics.

Also, I always had my hand sanitizer on me, had my mask and all of that … but for the most part, the challenge I had experienced was with cost of living. Having to spend spend spend during this time especially with how difficult it has been. I mean take JPS and NWC for example, my bills doubled and even tripled and then groceries weren’t cheap either especially since I’d want to stock up so I wouldn’t have to be going to the supermarket or leaving the house too often. So, yea … where COVID is concerned, I’m learning to adjust but it definitely has worked on my pockets.

Orlando enjoying the company of friends before the arrival of COVID-19 to Jamaican borders

With all of these factors that you’ve listed, from having to be at home; moving classes online, and the increase in your bills, how are you coping mentally?

At times it felt a little bit overwhelming, I’m not even going to lie. When you realize that things are not going your way because … the reality is that like myself, people are used to some sort of structure in their life and COVID basically shifted that structure. So, I found where I basically questioned how I would get through this and how do I adequately adjust to these changes. You can’t get to see your family or go out with friends because of the fact that you can’t really mix and mingle like before. But I kept telling myself that ‘if you practice the right thing you will protect yourself and others‘.

Tell me more about how it affected your mental health.

Oh yes, I know for me that there were days where I felt like I was going crazy because I just wanted to go out and pretty much just be outside and not be cooped up in the house because staying inside gets boring after a while. I even felt very trapped at times because after doing work online I would obviously want a break and go do something fun OUTSIDE!

So, did this restriction of your movement lead to any sort of anxiety or frustration then?

Well, the anxiety came academically when uhm … for UWI, I felt like I wasn’t getting the academical part of my life in check. I felt as though I wasn’t learning or doing the right thing and this whole switch from face to face to online simply wasn’t for me.

Would you say that this was as a result of COVID?

Uhh … yes because regularly I would be in class and as I said, face to face is better for me. But being online changed up a lot of stuff in terms of deadlines being switched or delayed and I found that school went on for a longer time because normally school would be finished by May but ended up going into July. So, there was a change in the whole dynamic of what I was used to because of COVID. So, for me … I found myself being very exhausted mentally and that was something that I didn’t like feeling.

 Was there anything that you did to relieve this mental exhaustion?

Alright, so what I did to basically reduce the whole mental exhaustion was always to keep myself occupied. So, if it’s not work, it’s basically conversing with other colleagues, doing and finding out stuff about school, helping others with their own issues and also binge watching tv series. Oh, and playing games helped now and then. But, wine. Sometimes I would have a little wine. So, there were different elements. There was nothing set. It depended on the mood I was in and just doing something that would create a distraction or so.

Would you say that these were a form of coping mechanisms for you?

Well … yes.

Oh okay. Did you have any other coping mechanisms apart from those that you outlined?

Well I attended some coping workshops online to keep me occupied. So, basically these were workshops that were debriefing sessions with other counsellors which the Ministry organized so that all counsellors from different regions could come together to see how we ourselves were coping during this time. So, these were sessions that allowed us to unwind and even share with us some strategies on how we can cope.

Photo Contributed by Orlando Brown

So, were these sessions helpful to you?

Yes, because it made me realize that other persons are going through some of the same things as me and that you know there are in fact ways, we can cope right now.

 Oh, that’s good. Alright so, what I want to know now then, is if you experienced any mental health challenges prior to COVID?

Oh no. I am someone who is very balanced and go off of structure. So, I’m used to just having a schedule that I follow like with getting up to go to work then leaving work to head to UWI and then from UWI to home. You get what I mean? So, because this structure or schedule rather was thrown off due to COVID, that’s when I realized that mentally, I was just all over the place.

Okay, so COVID definitely applied pressure then?

Yes, because it ruined a sense of structure for me and what it is, I was used to doing. So, it added a little indifference.

Okay well, is there anything that you’re doing right now to establish a sort of structure for yourself going forward?

Well as it relates to structure, ummm … I’ve been sorting out school stuff and been doing other little things to get my schedule on par. So, it’s not necessarily a case where I’m keeping occupied for the sole purpose of having a structure but more so taking the time to redirect my focus by attending these workshops like I mentioned earlier and also by planning towards what needs to be done for work and school.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us Orlando.

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