As Mental Health Awareness Month wraps up, we take a look at how the pandemic and its ensuing lockdown affected creatives from the MENA Region. With the invaluable help of UAE-based clinical psychologist Dr. Saliha Afridi, we came up with a short mental health questionnaire and sent the questions to five MENA creatives: Lebanese fashion designers Racil Chalhoub, Amine Jreissati and Roni Helou, Qatari entrepreneur and creative strategist Fahad Al Obaidly and FTA’s own Lebanese creative director Mélanie Dagher. Here are their candid replies and insights.
Q In general, how has the pandemic affected you and your work?
Amine Jreissati The pandemic had a positive effect on me and my work. Not at first though. At first it was difficult to figure out a way for me to a see a silver lining. Confusion, fear and the unknown were predominant. But then being forced to dedicate time to myself and to my thoughts and putting everything back into perspective made me realize what’s a priority and what’s not.
Fahad Al Obaidly The pandemic forced me and other creatives to reset and pause our traditional model of operating our business. I paused my fashion business, and I worked with my team to think creatively about using my skills to turn what I learned over the last eight years within the fashion industry into online classes or virtual workshops.
Mélanie Dagher It was a constant rollercoaster of projects being canceled or postponed. I had a huge project in LA with Gucci in 2020 that I never got to do because of COVID. It was an interesting shift in my daily work, questioning everything, but also being challenged creatively to think differently and come up with ideas and concepts that could be done within the safety measures.
Racil Chalhoub The pandemic was a very challenging time for me, as I am sure it was for many people. I sometimes don’t realize the magnitude of the effect it has had on different aspects of my life, both good and bad. When things started, I went into “warrior mode” – thinking I have a business to keep alive, employees to take care of and I will do whatever it takes to do so. On a personal level, I only realized how badly the lockdown affected me much later. I am still coming to terms with some of the personal outcome of it all.
Roni Helou Right before the expansion of the virus, we had finished setting up our showroom/atelier, which was going to be a space for us to hold events in, for people to come see us work and for clients to book appointments. For the first several months, this plan was paused given that lockdowns were restricting everybody’s movements. This weighed heavily on the team and myself, as we invested a lot of love and energy into establishing the space. But as time went on, we realized that the pandemic was giving us an opportunity to introspect, to rethink and to adopt a slower pace.
Q What are some of the challenges you faced? Were you able to cope with the challenges? If yes, what did you do to cope?
AJ On a personal level, being a people person, I found it hard to find myself disconnected and not having human interaction. But it is in our nature to adapt and cope with what life gives us. And meditation helped a lot.
FAO When the lockdown happened, we struggled for the first three months to shift everything online. We came up with a strategy for engaging with our audience. We used Instagram to be part of our clients’ lives by curating games and activities to keep them busy and active at home.
MD I didn’t feel inspired. Usually I get all my ideas through travel, meeting people, being surrounded by different environments. Being stuck at home was limiting my creative process, so I decided to dig into all my saved visual research, go back to old work and reflect on it, figure out what I wanted to explore more.
RC The main challenge I had to cope with was work-related. This took a lot of my time and mental strength. I was anxious about the outcome of it all, but when you’re put in a situation like this, you just have to get on with it, deal with the situation and not procrastinate. Easier said than done I know, but vital. The other main challenge was being home alone for months, which for someone who is fairly social like me is very difficult. I felt a little trapped and helpless but found different things to help me cope – long walks, cooking, speaking to some of my closest friends.
RH Aside from the fact that the pandemic restricted our foot traffic, the showroom was lost due to the August 4 Beirut explosion. We became financially more limited, which forced us to drop projects and collaborations. All of this reduced the momentum we had at the beginning of 2020, and I was having a hard time dealing with the situation. I was feeling helpless and exhausted. I decided to move to my hometown in Southern Lebanon to be closer to nature and reconnect with my family and my surroundings. After moving to Doha, my main challenges were to run the business remotely, which I was able to manage thanks to my team.
Q On a scale of 1 to 10, how have your stress levels been? What did you do to manage the stress?
AJ On a normal day, my stress level is at a 100. But weirdly enough, during the lockdown the stress almost vanished.
FAO 10. It’s hard to think creatively in times of anxiety and stress. To think creatively you have to feel safe, respected and be comfortable with failing. I have been working hard to pivot my thinking away from fragility and reframing it as resilience and adaptability.
MD It really depended on the day. This year has been insanely challenging. I had to leave Europe to come back to Beirut because of visa issues and got stuck here because of COVID. Then the August 4 Beirut explosion happened, and this event really changed my perception of things in general. Anxiety took over, a feeling I never had before. It was hard to deal and face this trauma on top of the COVID impact. Therapy and meditation really helped me.
RC Level 105! I don’t think I ever experienced this amount of stress or anxiety before. The responsibility of a business and employees, the uncertainty, orders being slashed and having to come up with a new business strategy overnight to stay alive. It was all a lot to handle. Adding to this the fact that I was away from my family for the longest time ever, and worried about my parents in Lebanon. I started doing a small morning practice, which consists of a short meditation and stretching session. I also worked out and ate really well – being kind to your body in times like this is essential.
RH I am not sure if I can exactly scale my stress levels, because some days I feel mellow and other days I feel like the entire weight of the world is on my shoulders. So maybe 5, 6, 13? Whenever I am feeling stressed, I try to get myself out of it by shifting my focus on more positive thoughts.
Q Tell us three ways you believe your mental health impacts your personal and professional life.
AJ I strongly believe that it’s all connected. So there is no “one, two or three ways” of how it affects it. It just does. It’s all related.
FAO My relationship with my family and friends becomes challenging. The way we used to express love or care physically was taken away from us because of COVID-19. Not knowing what the future will look like plays a big part in not risking or dreaming big.
MD Less creativity. Less emotions. More insecurities.
RC I must admit that I never really thought about mental health until the pandemic. I noticed some changes in my behavior, which I now understand are related to mental health. If you’re not feeling good in your head and mind, you won’t feel good in your body, and this will also affect your motivation, drive, how you go through your day or deal with people. One shouldn’t fear facing it or talking about it.
RH Personally, unbalanced mental health can lead to reduced motivation and drive, increased procrastination, loss of appetite and general negativity about ourselves and everything around us. Professionally, this can translate into poor communication within teams, reduced appreciation for smaller successes and lack of focus on the work itself.
Q In the last year, has your creativity been impacted? If not, how did you manage to stay inspired?
AJ Frankly not really. Creativity is not a constant anyway. No one can constantly be creative. You need to learn how to fuel it. And that’s what I always do. Pandemic or not.
FAO Yes, it positively impacted me – social media. I had never seen so much brilliant homegrown creativity from so many people as I had during the first few months of lockdown, when the nation seemed to collectively decide that comedy was the next best thing to a cure.
MD Yes, of course. Being overfed with images all day makes your thought process go crazy, and I ended up feeling like a machine delivering work just for the sake of it. I managed to stay inspired by reflecting on what I like, what I aspire to create. More quality, less quantity.
RC Creativity is part of my everyday life. When I wasn’t in the mood to design, I took it to the kitchen and played around with my cooking.
RH I feel creative on some days and less on others. The key for me is to be aware of the days where my creativity is reduced, not force the process and instead shift my perspective, either by reading or watching something insightful, being in nature or having a day to myself.
Q What did you learn about yourself in the last year?
AJ I learned how to be patient. And on a larger scale, I learned that life could change any second. For the best or the worst.
FAO Gratitude. That may be the word of 2020. With everyday things I took for granted suddenly taken away, I now value even the most straightforward actions: a hug, a handshake, a trip to the store, talking to a waiter, riding the bus unmasked, a visit from mom.
MD That I am way more complicated than I thought. But now I know myself more than ever. I am stronger even though I feel very weak mentally some days. It’s an interesting shift that I am still learning to embrace.
RC I learned so much, and I’m still learning. The main thing is that with a little effort, we can manage anything the world throws at us.
RH Slow and steady wins the race.