As some countries are reopening their borders after effectively combating COVID-19, other countries are opening up due to economic necessity. What most countries will have in common once reopened, is that people will be returning to a new world. Post-lockdown precautions will stay in place for the foreseeable future, at least until a vaccine can be found and globally distributed. While some of your favorite restaurants or pubs might not have survived the lockdown, you might also find that some of your friends, if not yourself, have become a shadow of what you once were. This commonality can be attributed to losing loved ones, and to those who have never had the experience of quarantining and self-isolating for lengthy periods of time.
With this pandemic has come a historic wave of mental health problems such as depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. While many countries have spent billions in schemes to protect their economies and workplaces, even some of the most developed countries have vastly underfunded mental health systems. Most do not have the facilities to handle this surge in people seeking help for psychological trauma. In a study conducted by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego University, more than half of the participants stated their mental health has been affected due to the coronavirus. The U.S. federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress has struggled managing its cases that have increased 1000% compared to April last year. According to the Washington Post, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services hotline received over 20,000 texts last month alone, compared to 1,790 texts at the same time last year.
The United Nations has also reported a worrying increase of suicide, drug overdose, and domestic abuse cases with support services in most countries becoming extremely overwhelmed. Adults between the ages of 18-44 have been suffering the brunt of serious mental health issues which will have devastating effects for all facets of life and economy, and lasting psychological trauma for years to come.
Isolation and Mental Trauma
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “imposed isolation and quarantine disrupts normal social lives… and [has] created a psychological fear of feeling trapped.” Older adults who have been living in isolation have suffered from extreme loneliness, depression, and become self-judgmental. Over an extended period, these conditions can lead to extreme reactions. A 50-year-old Indian man named K. Balakrishna mistakenly believed his normal viral infection was COVID-19, and he quarantined himself due to “fear and love for his family.” After an extended period of time however, he committed suicide “as he was psychologically disturbed after reading coronavirus related deaths in the newspaper.” Social boycott and discrimination due to a lack of information particularly in developing countries has also pushed people to extreme measures.
Such instances are not limited to one person under isolation as multiple people cordoned off feeling limited to low support have taken similar rash decisions. In Chicago, Patrick Jesernik shot and killed his partner Cheryl Schriefer before shooting himself. The murder-suicide was conducted at the height of the U.S. nationwide lockdown, which has had detrimental psychological effects on people such as Jesernik who was “frightened that he and Schriefer had contracted COVID-19.” An autopsy determined the pair tested negative for the virus.
High-ranking officials face similar mental trauma, as evidenced through Thomas Schäfer. Schäfer, who was the German State Finance Minister for the Hesse region, committed suicide due to “considerable worry and stress” surrounding the pandemic.
Strong Link Between Mental Health and Economic Turbulence
Therapists have struggled to bring their practices online due to licensing issues and other online restrictions, and community health centers have struggled to remain open or cope with the large surge in cases. This increased stress and anxiety will inevitably harm the economy by debilitating workers and further straining medical systems due to panic attacks, depression, and drug overdoses. There is a strong link between mental health and economic upheaval, and with worldwide recessions expected in the aftermath of COVID-19, people are rightfully worried.
As historically high unemployment rates continue to rise, statistics by a U.S.-based non-profit, Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, emphasize that over 40,000 deaths related to mental health suffering can be expected in the U.S. along with coronavirus-related deaths. The uncertainty during times of global recession demoralizes people with feelings of worthlessness and immense anxiety trying to survive from day to day. Most deaths are expected through suicide, substance abuse resulting in overdose, and domestic violence. These have been prevalent since lockdowns were first imposed.
Frontline Workers Face A Psychological Crisis
Recent evidence has suggested it is the essential workers, especially frontline medical professionals, who are most vulnerable. The multitude of patients along with stress and pressure felt by all medical staff has caused an environment of deep psychological trauma. Ambulance drivers, doctors, nurses, and caretakers have been under constant fear of infection dealing with unbearable stress, insomnia, and distress watching patients die alone. According to the NCBI, at least 50% of British medical staff will at some point be sick during the pandemic, piling more pressure to the doctors and nurses on call.
The trauma health workers face has caused for extremely worrying behaviour, and recent suicides from frontline workers highlights the magnitude of mental health risks associated with COVID-19. In London, for example, an unnamed nurse who was in her 20s working extensive hours at Kings College Hospital committed suicide after 8 people she was treating for COVID-19 had died. Lorna Breen, a top New York emergency room doctor, according to her family and friends, had no history of mental health issues or feelings of depression. However, due to the emotional weight and pressure associated with the virus, she also committed suicide.
Statistics seen around the world report at least half the global medical workforce will have dealt with mental health problems resulting from overall chaos revolving around the pandemic. Moreover, they fear contracting the virus at work and infecting their own families. Such instances have pointed to a lack of funding for the professional help many workers need. Medical staff suicides had already been increasing around the world in recent years, but the psychological trauma millions now face will take years to recover from.
Methods to Prevent Mental Health Illness.
However, mental health illness is preventable and treatable. According to the NCBI and the U.K. Suicide Support Line, interventions make a marked difference, along with limited access to weapons and lethal or addictive medicine. Screening patients for suicidal thoughts, treating underlying medical conditions, and ensuring access to therapy are all preventive methods known to help. Tele-counseling has been helpful where possible, and 24/7 crisis hotlines and mental rehabs are instrumental in making sure those isolated and vulnerable have the support they need as more waves of the coronavirus are expected around the world.
Some have taken positives from this pandemic; people have introduced new routines and learned new skills in quarantine. International bodies, such as the World Health Organization, have urged people to look after their mental health, with instructions easily accessible on their websites with how to do so. The WHO and United Nations have asked people to resist speculation regarding the virus, avoid constantly checking infection rates, and to simply follow the safeguards in place for the foreseeable future.
While some countries are lifting their lockdowns, others are buckling up for the chaos that lies ahead. As many countries are suffering from economic recessions, the real toll of the pandemic will come to light once things are “back to normal.” Communities are already feeling economic burdens of the virus, and the mental turmoil many will feel in a year’s time will be enormous. With weak mental health systems in most countries, the death-toll caused directly from the virus will add thousands of deaths from suicides and accidental overdoses. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to have adequately funded and supported mental health systems in place for people to have a smooth and healthier transition following the post-COVID-19 era.
If you or someone you know in the UK is depressed and needs help, 24/7 services are available at – Samaritans: 116 123, CALM: 0800 58 58 58, Papyrus (for people under 35): 0800 068 41 41 / Text: 0786003996.
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