Information about the latest local cases, the furtive yet ultimately speculative timelines for quarantine, and our universities’ tentative but wholly ambiguous (or perhaps unhelpful) instructions for online teaching and graduate packages moving forward is inundating the anthropology community. Yes, we can theorize how the extraordinary is prefigurative of the ordinary, how crisis is a chronic condition in many communities (we see you, Agamben). But right now we need practical, meaningful steps to take care of ourselves, our students, and our wider communities. As the Anthropology of Mental Health Interest Group (AMHIG), here are a few recommendations for the moment, a Coronavirus Care Package, as it were:
Think twice before you send another email. (1)
Account for the labor you request from ALL your colleagues, including student workers, and ALL students– undergrads, grad students, and post-docs. (2)
Adjust your expectations of your students and yourself. (3)
You don’t need to be productive right now. Give yourself permission to slow down. (4)
This situation does not have to be transformed into a “research opportunity.” (5)
Make space for the fact that everyone is going to be coping differently. (6)
Lead through listening, affirming, supporting, and providing transparency.(7)
Reduce harm by asking non-judgmental, thoughtful questions about others’ and your own needs and seeking out mutual aid groups in your community.
Don’t theorize the pandemic; take meaningful steps to help make it more manageable (reduce exposure to negative media, make a schedule, solve something).
1. Think twice before you send another email. Our inboxes are overflowing with emails—from important instructions from university administrators to assurances from our favorite local restaurants that they are taking all the necessary precautions not to risk transmission in your regular taco order. Even if you’re someone who regularly has hundreds of unread emails in their inbox, this influx of information is stressful. It’s hard to know what is critical content and what might as well be labeled as junk mail. Before you send another email to your listserv, consider whether there are better ways of communicating that information. Is there a way that you can consolidate information into one message, rather than sending multiple emails over the span of several hours? We can’t keep up, and our stress levels will only peak as our Gmail notifications keep pinging us.
2. Account for the labor you request from ALL your colleagues (including student workers) and ALL students (undergrad, grad, post-doc). Many graduate students are taking on the additional workload of helping classes to transition online, especially for faculty members who are unfamiliar with digital teaching tools. This digital transition involves a lot of additional time and energy. Many graduate teaching and grading assistants barely make enough to cover the costs of living (and some have been fired for taking a stand against their exploitation). For these reasons, faculty members should be considerate about asking for additional assistance from their grad students. This logic should also extend to the undergrads, many of whom also rely on outside jobs to help make their tuition affordable. If you want your graduate and undergraduate students to be involved in mutual aid, peer advocacy groups, or other forms of support within your department, consider how you can remunerate them for this assistance.
3. Adjust your expectations of your students and yourself. Consider making your class pass/fail, reducing the assigned readings and graded materials associated with your class, and making all lectures asynchronous. Not all students have access to the Internet in their homes. Not all homes are safe places for our students, and many students are experiencing chronic displacement. This is not a time to replicate neoliberal ideas of work giving a sense of purpose and meaning to people’s lives. Our job right now is to be gentle professors and mentors.
4. You don’t need to be productive right now. Give yourself permission to slow down. Just because you’re home right now does not mean that you’re necessarily going to be “more productive.” Maybe you’re worried about family members who are immunocompromised or at risk of becoming ill. Some of us are yelling at our Boomer parents to STAY THE FUCK HOME. You might be the primary caregiver of your household, so now you’re teaching, homeschooling, and attempting to get your own work done. You might have pre-existing mental health issues that are exacerbated by the fact that nothing feels like it’s in our control anymore. We need to reframe “more time at home” around the time poverty than many of us experience and the fact that our ability to focus might be informed by the privileges of wealth, external partnerships, housing stability, ableism, etc.
5. This situation does not have to be transformed into a “research opportunity. In addition to not pushing yourself, or others to be productive right now, this crisis doesn’t need to be another research opportunity, especially since IRB has placed a hold on face-to-face research and many of the communities with whom we work are impacted by the virus. If theorizing the pandemic and helping others to do so provides you with energy and motivation to get through your day, then rapid-response ethnography is absolutely necessary. But emphasizing a heightened work ethos right now only reduplicates the “publish or perish” mentality (emphasis on the perish, if you’ll pardon the gallows humor). The people able to produce academic content or develop resource projects are likely to be more professionally secure than the precarious faculty and students just trying to survive this moment.
6. Make space for the fact that everyone is going to be coping differently. No one knows the best or most salient ways to handle this situation yet. What is working for your friends and family members, or your academic cohort, might not work for you. The coping mechanisms you develop for one day might not work on the next day. Individuals with pre-existing medical and mental health conditions have likely developed coping and survival strategies to deal with anxiety or depression. We can look to the resources some healers have provided—such as guided meditation, deep breathing exercises, care pods, etc. This period is going to be difficult for those of us who are planners and fixers. Figure out what is within your scope of control, set reasonable goals for yourself, and hold space for the fact that even though we are in this experience together, we are all experiencing it differently, in our own ways.
7. Lead through listening, affirming, supporting, and providing transparency. So how do we give care to one another? The first step is just to listen. We’re qualitative researchers—we understand the power of letting someone talk and tell their story. People need to be heard in their fear, grief, and anger. We can all do that for one another. When responding, do not try to silver lining this shit. I know everyone is having a tough time right now, Aunt Carol! Just because many are suffering doesn’t diminish our own suffering or feelings. So rather than trying to scale out or proselytize the power of positive thinking, affirm what others are feeling. Tell them that what they’re experiencing is valid. Rather than trying to problem solve, ask how you can support them. We don’t necessarily need someone coming in to provide solutions (although that might be part of your supportive role)—maybe we just want someone to talk to, send dog pictures or dinner recipes, or play Animal Crossing with. Let your loved ones tell you what they need. And finally, be transparent about your own state of mind and capacities as a friend or a mentor. If you’re having a tough time and can’t talk about certain subjects, you’re allowed to set up those boundaries. If you’re also struggling with next steps, communicate that. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Your friends would rather know where you are coming from and what you are prepared to offer.
Made it through all of our footnotes? Perhaps you’d like to join us as we create a policy statement regarding best practices to support the mental health and wellbeing of anthropologists, especially of graduate students. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to learn more about how to get involved!