By Amelia Cole
The coronavirus has shattered the modern world’s invincibility complex and forced the public to deal with a health crisis unlike any other. As countries mobilize to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and ‘flatten the curve’, there is another echo pandemic looming beneath the surface, one whose victim is our mental health.
While the coronavirus ravages the lungs of those who are infected, it devastates the mental health of everyone, regardless of whether they are touched by the virus.
Whether it is economic difficulty, social pressure, feelings of loneliness and helplessness, or plain anxiety, there are never-ending reasons why, with corona, there comes a spike in mental health issues across the board.
On the economic side – the link between unemployment, mental health and suicide is long acknowledged. Research from the times of the 2008 great recession showed that with a one percent increase in unemployment came a one percent increase in rates of suicide.
This is frightening considering that, right now, we are dealing with so much more than an economic slump alone.
The social isolation being demanded to fight the virus brings with it its own host of challenges for our emotional stability. In the best cases, we are dealing with loneliness, apathy, and boredom, and in the worst cases we are seeing domestic abuse cases rising, the elderly abandoned, and those with addictions to drugs or alcohol unable to maintain sobriety.
Then there is the unknown – as creatures of habit, this complete shift of reality overnight has people rattled, especially those with pre-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. Coupled with the contradictory information we are receiving from leaders about the virus, it results in an unstable reality for all.
An article in the Deccan Herald documents three suicide cases in India over the past month, all of which revolve around elements of COVID-19. The article argues that these deaths, too, should be considered part of the COVID-19 death count since the mental trauma and agony of this pandemic is a less-represented, but greatly impactful side of the coronavirus.
India is one of the countries suffering the most from the mental anguish during this time. The toxic poverty and major levels of inequality are a lethal recipe when mixed with COVID-19.
Dr Vikram Patel, one of the world’s leading experts on mental health commented on the situation, reminding readers that during the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, there was a 30% increase of suicides amongst older people, a frightening reality.
But what might be the most important factor to consider when thinking about mental health during COVID-19 is the long-term effect. Once the pandemic is finally over, and people go back to whatever their new ‘normal’ is, the anguish, anxiety, and post-trauma will not disappear. In fact, it may be even worse than during the pandemic itself.
Mark Henick, a mental health strategist and speaker commented on this, stating “It’s a traumatic societal event for people. And one thing that we know about trauma is that while it’s happening, you do whatever you can do to survive,” but following this time, the public will have to deal with “residual stress, depression, certainly financial pressures, learning how to re-engage with the world in this new way.”
It could not be clearer that the mental health concerns of both the present and future ought to be acknowledged and addressed. Along with continuing the fight against COVID-19, leaders and institutions worldwide must pay attention to the other deadly threat creeping in the shadows. Whether that means upping the funding of mental health organizations, promoting, and encouraging public and private helplines, or actively encouraging the public to get informed and prepared for the very real emotional upheavals of this time.
We ought to get equipped, because we do not need another pandemic of any kind taking more precious lives.
Amelia Cole is a graduate student enrolled in the Economics department in Birmingham University.