Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Norwegian Expressionist painter. The painting is called "Despair" and expresses an anxiety attack by Munch.

How to deal with crisis and catastrophe

Resilience from the outside. Our psyche will not let us do it all on our own.

A plane crash, a tunnel fire, a mass shoo­ting. It’s almost impos­si­ble to imagine what living through any of these trage­dies would do to you. These things do happen. Out of nowhere. They push people to their limits and beyond. When extra­or­di­nary events happen in the work­place, staff in a posi­tion of respon­si­bi­lity find them­sel­ves facing an enorm­ous chall­enge. They have to support nume­rous employees in the midst of the crisis, while deal­ing with the situa­tion them­sel­ves. Care­link specia­li­ses in hand­ling events of this nature. 

The foun­da­tion can be relied on when there are major emer­gen­cies. ‘But we respond mostly to situa­tions affec­ting a smal­ler group of people, such as suici­des at the work­place, acci­dents, robbe­ries, thre­ats and violence,’ says mana­ging direc­tor Caro­lin Wälz. ‘These situa­tions deeply affect the people closest to them.’ 

Facing extreme situa­tions as a society

It’s hard to predict how exactly an extra­or­di­nary event will unfold and how an indi­vi­dual will react. ‘People often respond to extreme stress in ways they wouldn’t have expec­ted,’ says Wälz. They might feel help­less or faint. They could be over­come with anger, grief or sorrow. Ever­yone reacts in a diffe­rent way. Care­link is there to share the load and help people to regain a sense of struc­ture, safety and peace. They need to under­stand and process what they’ve been through. ‘When someone can arti­cu­late what has happened to them, they can process it intern­ally,’ she says. As a foun­da­tion specia­li­sing in these events, Care­link can draw on its expe­ri­ence to show compa­nies and indi­vi­du­als how to nego­tiate a time of crisis. This guidance would have been helpful for society as a whole during the pande­mic – an extreme situa­tion we all faced in recent years. For large sections of the popu­la­tion, mental health fell by the wayside for a long time. 

‘The pande­mic was an extreme situa­tion for our whole society, which put a huge strain on so many people’s mental health,’ says Stépha­nie Merte­nat Eicher, mana­ging direc­tor of Fonda­tion O2. This foun­da­tion, based in western Switz­er­land, is a centre of exper­tise for deve­lo­p­ment and preven­tion, health promo­tion and sustainable deve­lo­p­ment project manage­ment with a parti­cu­lar inte­rest in mental health. 

‘It was an extre­mely complex time for ever­yone, but people who were alre­ady vulnerable strug­g­led most with their mental health,’ she adds. Busi­nesses can prepare for crisis situa­tions and improve their resi­li­ence by draf­ting contin­gency plans and plan­ning support stra­te­gies. As a society, we also need to make sure we learn from what we have all been through over the past few years. We must not forget that the pande­mic exacer­ba­ted pre-exis­ting health and social inequa­li­ties. ‘Accor­ding to statis­tics from the Swiss Health Obser­va­tory (OBSAN), young people who were alre­ady going through a compli­ca­ted stage of their deve­lo­p­ment were hit hard by the pande­mic. And now they need to get back on track and, most importantly of all, find their purpose in life,’ says Merte­nat Eicher.

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch. The expres­sio­nist expres­sed much of his own inner turm­oil in his art.

Under­stan­ding the extent of the problem

‘The Swiss Health Obser­va­tory has also repor­ted that one in two people struggle with their mental health at least once in their life (as a one-off or in the long term) and about 18% of the popu­la­tion suffer from one or more mental disor­ders,’ says Merte­nat Eicher. ‘That’s reason enough for us to talk about it and to take action to avoid these problems and issues in the first place. This is some­thing that affects us all.’ The Swiss Health Survey 2022 reve­a­led just how much young people – and young women in parti­cu­lar – are strugg­ling with mental stress: 22% of those aged between 15 and 24 said that their mental stress was medium to high. For young women, that figure rose to 29% and 18% of women in this age bracket said they had suffe­red from anxiety over the past year.

Talking reco­very

‘Dare to talk about it’ is a slogan that encou­ra­ges people to open up. It’s a senti­ment often expres­sed in mental health campaigns. Merte­nat Eicher has noti­ced a posi­tive shift in young people using support services such as ciao.ch instead. But there’s still a long way to go until the taboo surroun­ding mental health has been lifted. She belie­ves that accep­tance of problems streng­thens the resi­li­ence of a society. Howe­ver, it’s important to conti­nue to raise aware­ness of mental health issues and combat the stigma. 

Talking openly about mental health through sharing perso­nal expe­ri­en­ces and raising aware­ness helps reduce stigma and crea­tes a healt­hier envi­ron­ment for ever­yone. Muriel Langen­ber­ger, mana­ging direc­tor of Pro Mente Sana, stres­ses how important it is to openly discuss the topic of mental health. People are social beings who rely on regu­lar inter­ac­tion with others. ‘During the pande­mic, that inter­ac­tion was limi­ted for a long time and that was hard for many people.’ The uncer­tainty and unfa­mi­lia­rity of the situa­tion placed even more strain on people’s mental health.

Buil­ding resi­li­ence as an individual

The pande­mic unco­vered problems that were alre­ady there. After all, a person’s mental health depends on their self-belief and sense of control over their own life. Our indi­vi­dual resi­li­ence rela­tes to our ability to over­come a diffi­cult situa­tion – and our belief in that ability. But it’s also boos­ted by the know­ledge that we have a social network of friends and family to call on in a crisis. Not ever­yone is lucky enough to have such a network. And the pande­mic drew atten­tion to that fact. ‘That’s why it’s important for people to seek exter­nal support during diffi­cult times in the form of coun­sel­ling and care,’ says Langen­ber­ger. There are diffe­rent ways of actively working on one’s own well being and buil­ding up resi­li­ence in the process. ‘Regu­lar exer­cise, a balan­ced diet, constant curio­sity and enough sleep are right at the top of the list along­side social inter­ac­tion,’ she says. There are plenty of ways for indi­vi­du­als to take care of them­sel­ves. Streng­thening your mental health puts you in a stron­ger posi­tion to cope with the harder times.  Nevert­hel­ess, the balance between resour­ces and load may become unba­lan­ced: nobody is immune to mental health struggles.

Over­co­ming crises together

The mana­ging direc­tor of Fonda­tion O2 raises another point:  our mental health is constantly evol­ving. ‘We can call it a conti­nuum because people go through diffe­rent phases depen­ding on the social context and their perso­nal situa­tion at the time. Anyone can deve­lop new skills to help them get through the tough phases. But they have to work at it. One needs proper support and advice on hand to help you find the right path to take.’

The same applies to employees in the work­place. Accor­ding to Wälz, they can help to boost their company’s resi­li­ence by buil­ding a culture of empower­ment, diver­sity and colla­bo­ra­tion. ‘The main thing is that busi­nesses provide their employees with the resour­ces that will support them by balan­cing the extra­or­di­nary stressful situa­tion they are having to respond to in the moment,” she says. And yet each situa­tion shows us that diffe­rent parties have to take respon­si­bi­lity and that it takes a village to over­come a crisis. She points out that canto­nal care teams and mental health orga­ni­sa­ti­ons need to get invol­ved too. This is not true in crisis situa­tions. There are various aspects to consider when it comes to buil­ding resi­li­ence. ‘Impro­ving mental well being is a shared respon­si­bi­lity that invol­ves the indi­vi­dual and society as a whole. We cannot do it all alone,’ says Merte­nat Eicher. It’s possi­ble to start lear­ning skills as a child that can be drawn on later in life to over­come problems such as stress.

Edvard Munch with his very perso­nal pain­tings. He also called them his children.

Publi­cise support offers

Even though it’s down to us as indi­vi­du­als to take care of our own mental health, we some­ti­mes need to rely on exter­nal support. Mental health profes­sio­nals offer a neutral and objec­tive perspec­tive on mental health issues, which can be compli­ca­ted. ‘It’s important that people realise that the fact they are respon­si­ble for their own mental health does not mean they have to face their problems on their own. People can lean on various mental health profes­sio­nals for the mental health help and support they need. It falls to orga­ni­sa­ti­ons such as ours to tell the popu­la­tion that this support is available,’ says Merte­nat Eicher. Langen­ber­ger agrees. And she has noti­ced that people are beco­ming more open about their mental health, And there is much more coverage in the media too since the pande­mic. But she adds: ‘That does not mean that the taboo surroun­ding mental health has disap­peared. People who are strugg­ling may still feel the same old stigma and face discri­mi­na­tion. That’s why it’s important to raise aware­ness about mental health in all its forms. We need to spread know­ledge in order to do an even better job of shat­te­ring stereotypes.’

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