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Mental illness during the Covid-19 pandemic: Who’s at risk, why and what you can do

There is no understating the risk of developing mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression during a pandemic. Here's what you can do about it.

Across the board, during a pandemic, no one is safe from the threat of mental illness. But who's even more at threat of this are those who are already suffering from mental ilnesses An invisible threat is difficult to combat, especially when you're locked in between 4 walls and a torrent of negative media However, we must remember that we play the greatest role in influencing the mental health of ourselves and others

With the rapid spread of the Coronavirus pandemic across the world, the world is devastated by infection cases that are increasing exponentially, with deaths following suit. However, in the flurry of it all, we’ve come to forget that when a pandemic strikes, another health risk emerges: the rise of mental illnesses. 

Who’s at risk, and why?

There is no understating the risk of potentially developing mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression during a pandemic. People are scared of an invisible threat that could be a mere cough or sneeze away – even in their own household. 

The elderly are at the forefront of this, and likely the ones most at risk. Given old age ailments that they might already suffer from, now with the additional threat of a deadly virus taking away what little time they have, they’re bound to be put under unbelievable stress.

“To be told that you’re very vulnerable can be extremely frightening and very fear-inducing,” Aiysha Malik, a psychologist with the World Health Organization (WHO), said earlier this month, adding that older adults may be especially prone to feeling anxious, stressed out, isolated and angry right now.

While the young have put on a defiant front, under the impression that they’re generally safe from the virus, even they have had to stop and consider that their loved ones – their parents, aunt, uncles, grandparents – could all be susceptible to going down with a severe case of Covid-19, with a potentially tragic outcome. 

Even healthy adults share this concern, as well as the added fear of worrying about their youngest, who have been identified as more susceptible to the virus due to their less developed immunities. Luckily, a new study has challenged this claim, with inconclusive results.

We must also remember the brave men and women who serve as medical personnel, that are putting their lives at risk everyday to help save the world. They are especially at risk from giving in to anxiety and stress. 

Across the board, during a pandemic, no one is safe from the threat of mental illness. But who’s even more at threat of this are those who are already suffering from mental ilnesses. In fact, they’re even more susceptible to infection as their mental state deteriorates.

“When epidemics arise, people with mental health disorders are generally more susceptible to infections for several reasons,” medical journal The Lancet explains. “First, mental health disorders can increase the risk of infections, including pneumonia. One report released on Feb 9, 2020, discussing a cluster of 50 cases of COVID-19 among inpatients in one psychiatric hospital in Wuhan, China, has raised concerns over the role of mental disorders in coronavirus transmission.

  • Possible explanations include cognitive impairment, little awareness of risk, and diminished efforts regarding personal protection in patients, as well as confined conditions in psychiatric wards. 
  • Second, once infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2—which results in COVID-19—people with mental disorders can be exposed to more barriers in accessing timely health services, because of discrimination associated with mental ill-health in health-care settings. 
  • Third, the COVID-19 epidemic has caused a parallel epidemic of fear, anxiety, and depression. People with mental health conditions could be more substantially influenced by the emotional responses brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic, resulting in relapses or worsening of an already existing mental health condition because of high susceptibility to stress compared with the general population. 
  • Finally, many people with mental health disorders attend regular outpatient visits for evaluations and prescriptions. However, nationwide regulations on travel and quarantine have resulted in these regular visits becoming more difficult and impractical to attend.”

As if fear for our lives and for those of our loved ones is not enough, a large portion of the world has had to commit themselves to home-quarantine, to help “flatten the curve” of rising infections. Additionally, many countries have begun imposing curfews with great repercussions for those that break them. What this has done is compound the stress many are already facing, as the solitude of being stuck at home and the cutting off of social gathering and interactions saps away our energy and morale. 

Now add to this the threat of salary cuts, lay-offs, and lost business as a result of social distancing, and you have a recipe for a mental breakdown. The coronavirus pandemic is a war that threatens the world not with bullets and tanks, but with disease of the viral and mental kind, launching an offensive on our physical and mental selves in a way the world has tried to forget with previous pandemics.

But fret not, there are ways to fortify our spirits. 

What can we do?

As with most illnesses, our greatest enemy is ourself. Therefore, if we can fortify ourself mentally and physically, we become less prone to becoming a victim of the ailments of the mind. 

“For starters, everyone needs to look after one’s own basic needs to stay mentally healthy in a stressful time,” the WHO’s psychologist Aiysha Malik said regarding mental ilness during the Covid-19 pandemic, as reported by NPR.

“We can feel mentally better if we are as physically well as possible,” Aiysha Malik, a psychologist with the World Health Organization, said at a news conference.

“Malik’s tips for self-care include:

  • Eat healthy foods
  • Stay physically active
  • Get regular sleep and rest
  • Create a sense of structure and routine in daily life
  • Connect socially with friends and family, while maintaining physical distance”

The next greatest enemy of mental health is the other. Often during times like these, not only is the other friends, family and colleagues, but more often than not it’s the media. 

“If you isolate someone and they’re only consuming media outlets or websites that are giving them really concerning, hopeless information… without any external stimulus… that raises potential for that person to [take their life],” said Dr. Micheal Freeman, a professor of forensic epidemiology and psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), quoted by US newspaper Portland Mercury.

He reminded that “folks who are already living paycheck to paycheck, who get laid off, and then are being told this thing is huge and out of control and there’s no end in sight,” are at risk. 

So how do you combat the media and torrent of negative (and often misleading or untrue) news? 

“There is a ton of information out there. The challenge is trying to determine which information is accurate.” says Lynn Bufka, Associate Executive Director for Research and Policy at the American Psychological Association, as reported by CNN

According to CNN, she suggests taking control of your intake through the following steps: 

  • Find a few sources you trust and stick with them 
  • Limit the frequency of your updates 
  • Know when to walk away 
  • Practice social media self discipline 

Moreover, we all have a role to play as ‘the other.’ As the other, we must be careful about what we say, what we share, and how we treat others, especially the sick. 

“People who are affected by COVID-19 have not done anything wrong, and they deserve our support, compassion and kindness,” the WHO reminds. “Do not refer to people with the disease as ‘COVID-19 cases’, ‘victims’ ‘COVID-19 families’ or ‘the diseased’. They are ‘people who have COVID-19’, ‘people who are being treated for COVID-19’, or ‘people who are recovering from COVID-19’, and after recovering from COVID-19 their life will go on with their jobs, families and loved ones. It is important to separate a person from having an identity defined by COVID-19, in order to reduce stigma.”

Unfortunately, there have been reports of racial discrimination, sometimes of the violent kind, aimed at Asian immigrants of all nationalities in countries like the US and the UK, given that the virus originated in China. This is putting unneeded stress on regular people who are just like us, trying to survive having had no hand in causing the pandemic. 

Finally, let’s take responsibility in our social circles.

“People are going to talk. But if you want to run to a friend to discuss the latest outbreak cluster or your family’s contingency plans, try not to create an echo chamber,” CNN explains, 

“If you are overwhelmed, don’t necessarily go to someone who has a similar level of fear,” Bufka says. “Seek out someone who is handling it differently, who can check you on your anxiety and provide some advice.”

If you can’t seem to get a handle on your thoughts, professional help can be an option. “It doesn’t need to be a long-term thing,” Bufka says. “It means you can get some guidance for this specific situation.”

A viral pandemic mustn’t necessarily be a mental health pandemic too. We can all help each other overcome it. 

For full guidance on mental health during this crisis, visit the WHO’s website here.