Recognising mental health implications of Covid-19

NOT too long ago, I called my mum to check on her and how’s she’s coping amid the coronavirus lockdown.  In the middle of our conversation, she suddenly asked “You okay?”, “You sound a bit low” I paused for a while and staring blankly at my screen, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Truly, for days, something inside me was off. The sensations were subtle, but they were there, quietly and persistently brimming. We were six weeks into Covid-19  lockdown with most of my days lonely and unflinching, and screens overflooded with news, rants and paranoia. The pandemic at this point, had of course infiltrated every facet of my waking life – which I mostly spent in my room. Stripped from the life and people I was so accustomed to, I was at that point growing restless. My thoughts would race, but my focus would slip. Just when it felt like I could put my mind into doing anything, that moment would slip by just as fast. Weekends and weekdays felt the same, and I would often catch myself staring off into space, with no particular thought in mind. I was confused, scattered, unmotivated, stressed, worried, and guilt-ridden and depressed.  I was in a slump, and what was worse was feeling helpless about it all.  “It’s the plague atmosphere,” My mum and I finally concluded, after I managed to retort same in response to her question.

Unfortunately, the anxiety and mild depression being experienced by me were, in fact, universal. I mean the whole world situation was enough to make one feel confused, anxious, frustrated, no matter how much you tried to tell yourself that things could be worse.  In addition to the elevated levels of stress and worry, health authorities were raising awareness of the added impact that the outbreak could have on psychology and mind of everyone. For one, lockdown could be tough and the daily news about the pandemic and its crisis could be depressing. Since the outbreak of the virus in Nigeria for instance, its effects and efforts to contain it have disrupted the economic and social lives of the people. It has consequently plunged many into poverty, even as many companies and businesses are at the risk of collapse. In all of these, thousands of citizens remain at the receiving end. By that, I mean there’s an ongoing grief for the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and even fear for the future.

Even so, countries across the globe have already reported significantly higher numbers of urgent mental health referrals in the wake of the pandemic. Similarly, psychoologists and psychiatrists have  reported a rise in the number of people turning to them as they try to navigate the ongoing fear of the virus, the emotional impact of physical and social distancing and economic distress.  A recent survey also shows that eight in 10 people said they needed psychological support to overcome the pandemic, a much higher response compared with similar surveys ever done in the past. To be sure, lockdowns, travel restrictions, school closings and social/physical distancing have created a level of social isolation previously unseen across the globe. This upending of life, for many, can have profound consequences on one’s mental health. More so, World Health Organization (WHO) has revealed that “levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour” are expected to rise due to a disruption in normal life activity that the whole world is experiencing .

It has also been reported that the respiratory disease has killed and continues to kill millions of people across the world even as it has  wreaked havoc on the healthcare system and economy. But countries creep out of lockdown and want to organise a return to some form of normalcy, the toll on mental health is  beginning to become apparent.  Yet, of all the measures in place so far, little or no attention is being paid to addressing the psychological impact of Covid-19 and its effect on the mental health especially of Nigerians.  The World Health Organization (WHO) had warned earlier that coronavirus “may never go away” in the real sense and was of the opinion that a global mental health crisis caused by the pandemic was looming. Hence, as we all continue to navigate Covid-19 and the changes it is bringing to each of our lives, we, as a matter of urgency, have a responsibility to reach out and start the conversation around mental health. It has become pertinent that mental health becomes part and parcel of primary health care and not merely an afterthought added to other health issues which are viewed as more important.

For too long, mental disorders have been largely overlooked as part of strengthening primary health care. This is despite the fact that mental disorders are found in all countries, in women and men, at all stages of life, among the rich and poor, and in both rural and urban settings. For instance, mental health professionals are rare in Nigeria, as it is the case in many other developing nations. In Africa’s most populous nation – a country of more than 200 million people – there are an estimated 150 practising psychologists, and even less number of psychiatrists. Against the background of these glaring deficiencies and their negative implications, we ought to know that it’s about time governments, civil society, health and other appropriate authorities all came together urgently to address the mental health dimension of this pandemic. And it would be important to call on governments in particular to announce ambitious commitments on mental health via proper funding as part of the response to Covid-19. Policies must support and care for those affected by mental health conditions and protect their human rights and dignity. Also, it is necessary to undertake the widespread education of the Nigerian public on the recognition of mental health disorder as a disease like any other that simply require proper medical attention even as there would be the need for societal and family support and the avoidance of stigmatization of people suffering from mental health disorders.

In the final analysis, the pandemic poses an obvious threat to physical safety, but it is important to remember that the mental impact of Covid-19 is just as real as the physical impact. For people like me, anxiety will be temporary and will fade over the coming weeks and months. But for others, it could represent a more long-lasting concern that urgently requires our collective  support to overcome.

  • Yakubu is with the Department of Mass Communication, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria

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