DR ABRAR-UL HAQ WANI & DR MUZAFFAR SHAHEEN
Steven Soderbergh’s movie ‘Contagion’ is now playing out in real. COVID-19 took just two months to become a crucial and scandalous part of our daily lives. The economic fallout is evident in stock market bloodbaths. What is not so evident is the way it is disrupting livelihood and mental health. Assessing the impact of the corona pandemic is almost utterly biased towards ‘deaths’, while mental health, one of the most common indicators of public health, is ignored.
Anxiety, sleep disorders, panic attacks, depression and loneliness are the known consequences on mental health of living through a pandemic. The coronavirus outbreak has exponentially increased the bombardment of half-truths via social media, fuelling stress and panic. A constant sense of insecurity for oneself and loved ones, and the fear of losing livelihood, are the main psychological effects of a pandemic. Social and physical distancing results results in a state of mixed emotions, which can aggravate mental illness. The phobia of stepping out of home, the stigma attached to people with symptoms of flu, the compulsive need to hoard food or medical supplies, etc, also create a sense of insecurity.
The fear of contracting or the guilt of transmitting infection has been reported in healthcare workers, paramedics, volunteers, virologists, and media persons at the frontline of the COVID-19 control/ reporting. One of the key lessons learnt from the SARS and MERS epidemics was the need for early sensitisation of public health experts to psychological effects of a pandemic, and to cater to the mental health needs of those quarantined. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has emphasised the importance of a mental health response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
In recent times, Chinese psychologists discovered the benefits of online counselling sessions for healthcare workers as well as those in isolation. The Second Xiangya Hospital in Hunan followed the protocol of daily digital communication with loved ones, group psychotherapy, catering to individual dietary needs, comfort and leisure, continuation of job-related activities, and update of COVID-19. This methodology helped in preserving the dignity of isolated people. Lack of such care often forces people to resist isolation or abscond for the fear of getting trapped.
People lacking social or financial support, or those with infected or dead family members, need special care. Though scores of helplines are active, there’s rarely a voice that caters to those in panic. In India, institutes like NIMHANS and AIIMS are working with community healthcare teams to offer mental health care support. Recently, a suspected COVID-19 patient admitted to Safdarjung hospital allegedly committed suicide. It is an example of how panic situations affect mental well-being. Everyone reacts differently to stressful conditions. Individuals who may be more seriously affected by stress include older people and people with chronic diseases, children and teens, doctors and healthcare workers, and people who have mental health conditions including problems with substance use.
Debunking misinformation in this digital age is a collective responsibility. Even one stupidly forwarded message can snowball into panic that brings out the worst in us. Remember, pandemics are eventually transient. As hundreds of scientists collectively unravel the many mysteries around the virus, drugs are made and countries mount their emergency responses, there’s hope that life will ultimately return to course. Prioritising public health and aggressive restrictive measures early are the key for containment of a pandemic. The human race will consider this outbreak as one that made us revisit Leo Tolstoy’s words: “We are divided by borders, but united by the world.”