The mental health crisis of our time
Experts are calling for countries to change the way they treat such issues, amid a potential global spike in suicides
Social distancing, self-isolation, stay at home - the past few months have been all about being away from other people. This pandemic-led forced hibernation of sorts, combined with a deep uncertainty about the future, concerns about getting sick with Covid-19 and an unstable economic environment has brought to the fore a number of issues - with mental health high among them.
In May, a UN statement talked about the pandemic exposing decades of neglect and underinvestment in addressing mental health, calling for commitments from countries in the way they treat psychological illness, amid a potential global spike in suicides and drug abuse.
The first red flags appeared early during the coronavirus storm: in late March, German state finance minister Thomas Schaefer committed suicide after becoming "deeply worried" about the economic consequences of the outbreak. A month later, it was Dr Lorna M. Breen, the medical director of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, who took her life. Both she and Schaefer were reported to have no prior mental health issues.
Most recently, this week's news about the suicide of Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput has stirred up a veritable hornet's nest in India, putting the spotlight on mental health in a big way.
While the UN policy brief highlights "frontline healthcare workers, older people, adolescents and young people, those with pre-existing mental health conditions and those caught up in conflict and crisis'' as being most at risk, the pandemic puts everyone else at potential risk too.
Human beings are not programmed to be alone for long periods of time, and we all like to plan, at least to some extent, what the near future holds for us. We also like to be in control, and control is what this pandemic has taken away from us. Peer-reviewed journal The Lancet seems to confirm this. "Many people who previously coped well are now less able to cope because of the multiple stressors generated by the pandemic," said its Commission on Global Mental Health and Sustainable Development.
There is no Covid-19 playbook, the pandemic has taken us unawares, and we are learning a new fact about this virus every few days, only to be presented with a new research that nullifies the earlier one. Meanwhile, layoffs and pay cuts are contributing to a state of triggered and constant anxiety.
According to WHO, the national data of various countries appears to confirm an increased mental vulnerability "showing an increase in prevalence of distress in 35% of the population surveyed in China, 60% in Iran, and 45% in the US".
Constant 'fight or flight' mode
Psychologists note that fear is a normal response to perceived threat - as is our fight or flight response. The difference, however, is that this response is meant to be temporary - not last weeks and months. Such chronic stress is well documented to lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. The effect of isolation on such a state would, therefore, only be amplified.
In an interview for The New York Times, Matthew Nock, a psychology professor at Harvard noted, "There's increase in anxiety, but the more important piece is social isolation. We've never had anything like this - and we know social isolation is related to suicide."
The ultimate toll of Covid-19-related mental health issues will only be assessed in the coming years.
Meanwhile, practise these tips from WHO to stay mentally healthy as we weather the pandemic:
- Pause. Breath. Reflect
- Keep to a healthy routine
- Connect with others
- Be kind to yourself and others
- Reach out for help if you need it
(Maalik is partner consultant at The Loop, an integrated marketing and communications company.)