With countries going weeks and even months into complete lockdown, the entire world is now very familiar, and increasingly struggling, with perfect social distancing as businesses shutter, millions of people lose their jobs, and entire industries crash down.
The financial implications of the pandemic are clear, though the full extent will not be known until life starts going back to the way we know it, where we can look back at these difficult times. But much less clear are the general public health impacts of the crisis, especially mental health, given that much of the world’s concerns are over the physical health of the people. Although the focus today is on fighting this epidemic, the mental health problems – both existing and newly created ones – cannot be overlooked.
Under normal circumstances, mental health issues have been affecting almost every aspect of our lives, but unfortunately, there is still widespread stigma, discrimination and lack of concern over the matter. In the late 2000s, Harvard Health pointed out that anxiety and stress are implicated in several chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, which many studies have agreed with later in the years. So prolonged loneliness and isolation do not only contribute to depression and anxiety amongst other conditions, but have serious implications to public health, making people more vulnerable and, hence weakening society. Today, the ordinary effects of isolation could very easily be amplified by the stress of enduring the crisis we have come to terms with. Given that it is not possible to predict when or how this pandemic is going to be over, so we can “resume” from where we left off, the uncertainty of the whole situation leads to further increased levels of stress, due to the lack of control individuals have on their lives.
Many factors prompt the heightened mental health crisis that the world is facing today, but an important one seems to be due to the governments’ roles during this epidemic. The initial downplaying of the severity of COVID-19 and the delayed serious response on the government’s part, especially in Europe, does not only result in extremely high pressure on hospitals and healthcare systems costing us more lives than necessary, but it has also eroded the public’s trust in the government’s ability to take quick, effective decisions, transparency and overall capabilities. This has spread the panic across countries, as reports of shortages in medical equipment, and medical staff started to surface, showing the world the lack of well-established healthcare systems, and especially making it clear to the public that the government and country as a whole are failing. Witnessing something like the UK government’s initial strategy to manage the spread of the infection through population immunity, has made it evident to the people that saving the economy is more of a priority than saving their own lives. Clearly, this leads to additional stress over the fact that the country has very little to offer to its people, but in addition, these actions and decisions by the government will not be overlooked after the crisis, and sooner or later, the people will demand to change.
Aside from those in isolation, the healthcare workers on the frontlines fighting the virus are especially at risk of serious mental health effects. Having to endure long, stressful hours of being in close contact to patients is naturally, going to induce fear among them as they fully understand, have seen and are trying to deal with the virus at its worst stages. They put their own lives at risk, not only for being surrounded by the infection, but due to the shortages of medical equipment required to help protect themselves. Dealing with this also includes losing patients every single day and having to deliver the news to families. Now looking at the bigger picture, they are humans, before doctors, and are still required to self-isolate at their own homes, keeping in mind that some choose to stay away from their families in order to protect them, and hence facing the same problems of loneliness that society is going through. The combined effect of all these factors, and even more, can very easily lead to many psychological diagnoses and could understandably cause people to leave the healthcare field altogether, after the trauma they had experienced.
During a peak in the crisis, it is difficult and perhaps impossible to fully understand the extent of the effects on mental health, but fortunately we can refer to past virus disease outbreaks and their impacts. As during the 2003 SARS and 2014 Ebola outbreaks, high stress levels, anxiety and fear among people were some of the psychological impacts. In 2006, a survey concerning the effects of SARS on healthcare workers in Beijing has found that 10% of the respondents had symptoms of PTSD, with those quarantining or those who have close relationships with people diagnosed with the disease were 2 to 3 times more likely to develop PTSD than others. This raises many concerns, given that COVID-19 is more transmissible, where the number of cases is close to the 4 million mark compared to 8,098 people who contracted SARS worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Using data from past outbreaks, keeping in mind the greater severity of the situation we face today, we are likely to expect greater numbers of mental health patients than ever seen before with issues that could very possibly last even after the pandemic.
What does this mean for the world, economically? Surely, with a mental health crisis in the making, and the expected rise in the number of people with psychological problems that restrict them from functioning normally in the economy, the labour force is going to be hit hard. To imagine the extent of how this is going to affect the economy, it is estimated that the UK GDP in 2015 could have been £25 billion higher if not for the mental health issues that had economic costs on businesses, according to Oxford Economics. In addition, estimates by the WHO suggest that the global economy loses almost US$1 trillion yearly due to depression and other mental problems. These figures are expected to rise, as the productivity of the people and their motivation to resume their jobs will not be unchanged. Like mentioned previously, it would not be surprising to see people leave the labour force completely.
Fighting the pandemic and preventing the spread of the virus is a priority but neglecting the importance of social contact and efficient mental healthcare systems now will have great social and economic costs later. With an especially urgent need for action to tackle this problem, it is worrying that the WHO’s strategic plan has not yet addressed any kind of mental health needs. As the virus spreads globally, we must prioritize the matter by developing and adapting well-coordinated plans to meet these needs as soon as possible to ensure the successful reconstruction of society for when we start gaining back some normality.