Mental Health during a pandemic: Getting a grip when COVID hits
By Jonathan Frank
As Sri Lanka enters an intense and uncertain phase of the pandemic, we should be equipped to deal with the fallout. One issue that seems to elude local attention is the pandemic’s impact on mental health. Humans are social creatures and prolonged isolation takes its toll, especially when things seem to be bleak as they are. One can’t help but feel fear, worry and stress at the sorry state of the world now and the call to adjust to a ‘new normal’ has more or less become an insipid mantra we say to ourselves just to stay sane. Compared to threats such as wars, terror, diseases and economic recession, the anxiety surrounding COVID-19 is not about the virus itself but the uncertainty it has imposed on society and it’s potential to trigger wars, terror, diseases or economic recession.
The feelings of dread and worry are normal responses to perceived or real threats, so it is normal and understandable that people are experiencing fear during this pandemic.
Added to the fear of contracting the virus are the significant changes to our daily lives as our movements are restricted in support of efforts to contain and slow down the spread of COVID-19. Faced with the realities of the ‘new normal’, it is important that we look after our mental and physical, health.
Response to the pandemic depends on one’s background, social support from family and friends, financial situation, existing mental and physical health, community plus more factors. The changes that can happen because of the pandemic and ways we try to contain the spread of the virus can affect anyone.
According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, those who may respond more strongly to the stress brought on by such crisis include, people who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (the elderly and people of any age with certain underlying medical conditions), those caring for family members or loved ones, healthcare workers, essential workers, drug users, unemployed or those working with wage cuts, people with special needs, those living in rural settings and people living alone, racial and ethnic minorities, the homeless and people who live in tight congregated communities.
Taking care of oneself or others can be a stress reliever and helping others cope by providing social support can also make your community stronger. People can still maintain social connections and care for their mental health during times such as these with the help of technology; phone calls or video chats can help you and your loved ones feel socially connected, less lonely, or isolated.
And although it is important to pay attention to news alerts to keep yourself updated, it also is beneficial to take breaks from watching, reading or listening to new stories (even those on social media); hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can cause frustration. Discerning your news is also very important and there are many ways that you can fact-check content including various social media plug-ins, smartphone apps and websites.
Japan’s suicide rate
But there are stark contrasts on how peoples around the world handle COVID-19. Despite economic advantages, countries with higher standard of living and well-organised social support systems were seen struggling with the pandemic. This year, Japan's uptick in suicides was such case.
The recent spike signals a strong shift away from years of declining suicide rates in Japan. This July, observers were surprised to see numbers as high as those of July 2019. And in August, which saw around 1,850 suicides that bottoming out was followed by a 15 per cent increase over the same month the year before. Initially, the coronavirus threat strengthened many people's immune systems and restrictions on public life reduced incidents of interpersonal conflict. In the meantime, the pandemic's social and economic consequences have become a strain on the mental health of many Japanese.
The country's unemployment rate rose from 2.4 per cent to 3.0 per cent between February and August, swelling ranks of registered unemployed to almost 2.1 million. Numerous small businesses and stores have closed for lack of income, leaving owners buried under a mountain of debt. The rise in the number of suicides is particularly stark in Japan because the country has recorded relatively few coronavirus deaths. So far this year about 1,600 Japanese have died of COVID-19 – compared to more than 13,000 by suicide.
Therefore, it is imperative that we in Sri Lanka pay attention to our mental health needs as we step into a new battle with the coronavirus. As much as the virus is dangerous by itself, its shadow poses an even darker reality.