The Current

'We want it all': Keeping a COVID-19 diary? It could help future historians — and your mental health

As physical distancing measures carry on, some Canadians are turning to journals in a bid to collect their thoughts and feelings about the crisis — and archivists are taking note.

Archivists around the world are collecting journal entries throughout the pandemic for future historians

Not only can journaling about COVID-19 help historians understand the pandemic in the future, experts say that it can be good for mental health. (Shutterstock)

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As physical distancing measures carry on, some Canadians are turning to journals in a bid to collect their thoughts and feelings about the crisis — and archivists are taking note.

Historians around the world are asking people cooped up during the pandemic to share their diary entries, photos, videos and even memes.

"When people ask us what we want, I say we want it all," said Catherine O'Donnell, one of the co-founders of A Journal of The Plague Year: A COVID-19 Archive.

"There are themes that emerge, but an archive is meant to be kind of a non-judgemental open space, and then the meanings are made out of it later on."

O'Donnell says people have already submitted photos of what she calls the "plague of things not there": Empty grocery store shelves and invites to cancelled events.

Catherine O'Donnell is a history professor at Arizona State University. (Submitted by Catherine O'Donnell)

Other artifacts, she adds, have acknowledged the sorrow that accompanies the pandemic — loss and separation — and the tension surrounding the rapid need to adapt to a new reality.

As a historian, O'Donnell says that in a moment like this, the need to gather people's experiences of the pandemic, however mundane they are, is important.

"The fabric of life is often lost to us," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. "We're at the mercy of an archive that is hopelessly slanted toward the famous."

The Tempe, Ariz., historian adds that in a time defined by isolation and fear, these memories can help people feel connected.

"There's usually a tendency to romanticize a difficult event and laughter in some sense. And so this will capture also that sort of misery of it as well as the sort of brighter moments," O'Donnell said.

Writing can help process stress

Not only can those scribblings from isolation help researchers and historians in the future, experts say they can also offer an outlet from the stress that comes with global uncertainty.

"There's a lot of research that shows us that writing about traumatic experiences is beneficial for us and that it helps us to process that stress while it's actually happening," said Karen Blair, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

Karen Blair is a psychology professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. (Submitted by Karen Blair)

In one study, researcher James Pennebaker found that Holocaust survivors who shared their stories in greater detail had more positive health outcomes a year after the interviews.

"We kind of have that sense that if it's negative, maybe we shouldn't talk about it. And if you had a traumatic experience, keep it to yourself," Blair told Galloway.

"[The] research really blew that open and said, no, writing about these things in the moment and after the fact actually is really beneficial to us."

Now amid the COVID-19 crisis, Blair is part of a team that's collecting diary entries from those in the thick of isolation. They hope to shed light on how the pandemic is affecting mental health.

Each day, participants check in with a short survey. Some even share details about their experiences that day.

"Some people begin with 'Dear COVID-19 diary,' but we also ask a lot of more pointed questions," Blair told Galloway.

"What's really neat about our study is that in addition to those stories and narrative, we're also tracking people's actual well-being, their stress, their depression symptoms, anxiety."

As they collect data, Blair hopes the research can have short-term benefits by sharing the findings with health-care professionals so they know what "Canadians are needing right now."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Arman Aghbali.