COVID-19 and mental health around the world

Nahid Riyasad | Published: 00:00, Apr 26,2020 | Updated: 15:44, Apr 26,2020


Jialun Deng

Students not only in Bangladesh around the world are now staying home to avoid the contagion of COVID-19. The confinement, the social distancing has an impact on mental health. Nahid Riyasad writes about the psychological toll of COVID-19

THIS generations biggest challenge will undoubtedly be coping with the transformed world after the COVID-19 crisis pass. As the popular saying goes, whatever doesn’t kill you will change you, the viral pandemic is bound to leave its footprints in the collective psyche of the survivors, around the world.

On the one hand, the pandemic has already killed nearly 200,000 people worldwide and on the other hand, this crisis has forced people to reject their lifestyle and confined them inside their homes creating a plethora of unheard and unexperienced concerns. Combine these two factors and we have a handful of different mental issues among the survivors that need some pondering because these survivors and their traumatised psyche will be building the future.

Recently, six studies were conducted by the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University and Bangladesh Health Watch to understand the general impact of COVID-19, as well as the psychological toll on the people of Bangladesh. Target groups of the studies are: apparel sector workers, frontline health workers and different marginalised groups including the transgender community.

Rapid case studies of the urban economic, cultural and socially marginalised communities of Dhaka found high level of fear, panic and anxiety because of the COVID-19 in the individuals. As the symptoms of the virus is not exclusive like that of, say bubonic plague, stigma, surveillance, discrimination and harassments are at rife in these communities because it is hard to determine who is carrying the virus and who is not.

In another study, the researchers have talked to 60 frontline healthcare workers who are not only physically stressed but also under immense mental pressure in fear of infecting their family members. They have also asked for more quality personal protective equipment instead of the incentive package that the prime minister announced.

The preventive measures taken has effected the income capacity of majority people. At least 58 per cent of the households have lost their means to earning during the lockdown, 29 per cent are living on partial income and a mere 13 per cent households have not experienced any loss of income. The fear of contagion coupled with loss of income has immensely effected people’s mental well-being.

New Age Youth, on April 19, published a story on the experience of online classes, where, two cases were discussed that showed how unstable income effects peoples mental health. Jannatul Mohua is an MBA student who started her own business right before the COVID-19 outbreak. Her husband and she invested a lot of money as well as labour to start their own venture but the crisis has, apparently, devoured all. She expressed her frustration that she might not be able to start over again and her dream of being self-dependent might never come true.

Another case was of Fazley Rabbi, whose father has experienced a third heart attack and still in serious condition, because the current crisis has brought a huge loss in his business. Rabbi is a junior executive at a corporate house and is forced to stay at home and he is not sure whether he would get salary at the end of the month. COVID-19 has apparently blocked all the channels of their family income which is threatening his younger brother’s study as well as survival of their family. As the elder son, he is under immense metal stress.

In the USA in early April, KFF Tracking Poll, an online survey found out that 54 per cent of those who lost income reported worry or stress, compared to 40 per cent of those who has not lost income. At least 26 per cent people reported major impact on their mental health compared to 15 per cent who still has income or job.

During the COVID-19 crisis, social distancing, physical distancing, quarantine, such words have come up frequently in media and public discourses. The capitalist economy system as well as neoliberal ideas are based on distancing one human being from another under the façade of individualism. Now, when a virus hits that actually need maintaining distance from the fellow human, what would be the impact on the generation Z as well as on the millennials? Studies will tell the actuals mental impacts on them but we do have researches on people’s mental health who have been quarantined previously.

During the SARS outbreak in 2003, a study titled ‘Understanding, compliance and psychological impact of the SARS quarantine experience’ found out various negative responses of the people who were quarantined because of being in close contact with those who potentially have the SARS.

The study showed that 18 per cent reported nervousness, 18 per cent had sadness and 10 per cent reported guilt. Subjects also affirmed a range of psychological responses to quarantine like confusion, fear, anger, grief, numbness and anxiety induced insomnia.      

In the USA during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 and in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak in 2003, suicide rates escalated among the senior citizens, studies have found. A recent study published online on April 15 titled ‘Multidisciplinary research priorities for the COVID-19 pandemic: a call for action for mental health science’ stipulates that mental health effects of the COVID-19 might be profound and suggests that suicide rates may rise worldwide.

On April 11, a ten-year-old girl in Sirajganj committed suicide, as media reported, due to shortage of food. Her father could not tolerate her nagging for food and scolded her which led her to the suicide. This is not an exclusive mental phenomenon but guild and inability to provide food for the family is bound to haunt the parents.

In an international consensus statement on suicide risk and prevention during Covid-19, published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, a global panel of mental health experts said, ‘Suicide is likely to become a more pressing concern as the pandemic spreads and has longer-term effects on the general population, the economy, and vulnerable groups.’

Those who have caught the COVID-19 and were admitted to hospitals and sent to the Intensive Care Unit, are bound to experience a notch above those who survive without catching the virus. A Kaiser study shows that in the USA, 42 per cent people who are hospitalised with the COVID-19 has to go to the ICU. A 2018 UK study on over 5000 ICU patients, says that 50 per cent ICU patients experience depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other mental health issues if they survive.

Students who are accustomed to going to school and mingling with friends everyday will be a major victim of mental health issues because they are confined at their homes at the ripe age of learning social skills of their lives. As of April 8, 2020, schools and educational institutes are suspended nationwide in 188 countries. 

According to the UNESCO, over 90 per cent enrolled learners counting up to 1.5 billion young people worldwide are out of education now. The organisation’s director general Audrey Azoulay warned that ‘the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled’.

New Age Youth’s story on April 19 deals with the problems with the tertiary level students when they were forced to attend online classes and examinations during a crisis. So, it is apparent that if the institutions make them to attend alternative methods of education, it does not turn our good for the students and their mental health? So what is the remedy?

In a survey by the mental health charity YoungMinds, which included 2111 participants up to age 25 years with a mental illness history in the UK, 83 per cent said the pandemic had made their conditions worse. 26 per cent said they were unable to access mental health supports offered by their schools; peer support groups and face-to-face services have been cancelled, and support by phone or online can be challenging for some young people.

According to a poll by the student counselling group Hok Yau Club based in Hong Kong in March, 2020, over 20 per cent of the 757 candidates of the Diploma of Secondary Education, which has been deferred till April 24, surveyed said their stress levels were at a maximum 10 out of 10.

After the SARS outbreak in 2003, both health workers and quarantined people showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders and in case of the COVID-19, people are at high risk of showing similar symptoms, Luana Marques, clinical psychologist and associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America told media.

April 24 marks the seventh year of the Rana Plaza collapse which is one of the worst industrial disasters in Bangladesh claiming 1134 lives and injuring more than 2500 people. Many of the survivors have been handicapped and still trying to go back to somewhat normal life. The COVID-19 crisis will surely burden their already grieving souls as the justice is yet to be served. Media reports sow all the owners of the readymade garment factories of Rana Plaza have opened new factories and continuing their regular lives.

Considering the epidemics of the last two millennia, especially three phases of plague and then smallpox and influenza, cholera – they left serious marks on the society and culture, as they did on the survivors. Departments for public health and importance of sanitation for everyone or mass vaccination would be a few to name. Also, when these pandemics left, they left survivors with heavy heart bruised with the gruesomeness of the illness.

During such crisis time, people feel helpless and restless because they do not know what will be the future and when life can go back to somewhat normalcy. Such crisis time also forces people to think about those who are at the economic, social, religious and sexual margin and have been feeling caged and rejected throughout their lives.

COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the world and the history of pandemics show people become particularly aggressive towards whoever does not fit their idea of normal. Let us hope, as hope is the only thing left at such times, that humanity will rise, at least this time, as a tolerant bunch towards cultural plurality.

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.

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