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SITUATION UPDATE 7 September, 2021 Back

Situation Update - The effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health

Dr Juliane Kause

Summary

  • COVID-19 -restrictions gradually easing across the globe
  • There remains a high level of general uncertainty which can have significant impact on mental and consequently physical health

Situation

With restrictions gradually being relaxed across the globe in relation to COVID-19, it is an opportune time to reflect on the situation at hand.

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, behavioural mitigation measures were introduced across societies. The quickest way to achieve compliance with these measures was through dissemination of information, which was often delivered in a ‘shock tactic’ style, which is a formula still adhered to to-date by many. As a result, we saw the slowdown of the spread of the corona virus. And undoubtedly unintended psychological consequences.

There is an unprecedented level of general uncertainty globally, leaders in different countries all claim to be adopting an approach led by scientific evidence underpinning their COVID-19 restrictions, but all impose different measures. People are therefore understandably uncertain as to what life ‘post COVID-19’ will look like and what the science really tells us.

After such a long period of social isolation, there are several aspects of uncertainty which can impact on an individual’s sense of wellbeing and personal resilience. Is it safe to leave the home? Is it safe to return to the workplace? Concerns for their own health and welfare, concern for the health and welfare of others, concerns about returning to the workplace after a period of working from home, all loom large in the minds of many who must take such decisions. The mental burden of these worries, added to our already increasingly complex lives and economic uncertainly, can be very challenging.

When a person’s mental health suffers, physical health can deteriorate as a consequence, leaving them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health has been under-recognised and under-responded-to during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The current situation of prolonged uncertainty can exacerbate existing mental health problems or bring previously undiagnosed mental health problems to light.

Anxiety and depression are likely to be predominant and can manifest in multiple ways. Things that may be seen are increased irritability, lack of motivation, difficulties concentrating as well as a multitude of symptoms which are perceived more physically.

Long periods of isolation and bereavement can also lead to loneliness – This emotion is complex and unique to each individual, and in turn can have health consequences. Lonely adults tend to exercise less, their diet is higher in fat, their sleep is less efficient, and they report more daytime fatigue. Loneliness also disrupts the regulation of cellular processes deep within the body, predisposing lonely people to premature aging.

Sustained uncertainty and mental distress can have a profound impact not only on individual’s mental health in the long term but also on their physical health. Persistent stress increases inflammation that damages tissues and blood vessels, increasing the risk of cardiovascular illness and death. It can interfere with the function of the immune system and make high blood pressure, obesity, and other conditions more likely.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people online and indoors, leading to a dramatic increase in screen time for many, and a lot of those hours have been devoted to what experts call ‘doomscrolling’ which is the ritual of scrolling through news feeds at all hours. A great proportion of people were also spending more than eight hours a day sitting, due to working at home or being on furlough, and this also has a detrimental effect on mental health, to the point of outweighing the benefits of regular exercise, as well as affecting sleep, appetite and potentially harming the ability to build relationships.

Analysis

Globally, restrictions of some form are likely to continue for some time. The Northern Hemisphere is in summer where traditionally spread of respiratory viruses is lower than in the winter. However, Northern Hemisphere COVID-19 case numbers are rising, although there has been dissociation between numbers of cases and hospital admissions/deaths in countries with a high proportion of COVID-19 vaccine uptake.

Throughout the pandemic fearmongering or scaremongering, has been prevalent with rumours about COVID-19, it’s transmission and more recently the vaccinations. This form of manipulation causes fear by creating exaggerated rumours of impending danger, which can have strong psychological effects, either intended or unintended, which, in turn, can make people fear the wrong things and therefore take ill advised actions.

In the UK, the proportion of adults aged 18 and over reporting a clinically significant level of psychological distress increased from 20.8% in 2019 to 29.5% in April 2020, before falling back down to 20.8% by September 2020. Recent evidence suggests that there was a second deterioration in population mental health and wellbeing during the second sustained lockdown between October 2020 and February 2021, this however has been followed by a period of recovery, which gives hope that with the easing of restrictions and return to normality, individual wellbeing will recover.

However, the recovery from COVID-19 and its multitude of consequences may take a long time.

The mental health consequences are likely to have repercussions on businesses, this could result in a fall in productivity and increased pressure on Human Resources departments. 18 months of continual uncertainty has impacted workers and teams more than many businesses realise.

Employees will be in different mental states - there will be employees who’ve been furloughed for a long period of time, returning to an unfamiliar working environment. Employees who have worked non-stop throughout the whole of the COVID-19 pandemic and may be exhausted, for some juggling home life and working from home for the first time. New staff who have been interviewed via virtual platforms but have never actually met anyone in their company face to face.

Businesses will have to do more to support employees going back to offices; for many a return will be a chance to socialise, rekindle relationships and catch-up. But for others, fear of freedom and a new environment may severely impact self-esteem and confidence levels.

Impact

The mental health implications of this period of prolonged uncertainty will potentially be long lasting. Access to psychological support for individuals will be beneficial and potentially limit the damage done, reducing absences from work, and providing better employee satisfaction.

Uncertainty and its impact on the global population is also something very difficult to measure and it is difficult to predict the outcome, when we do not know how or when the COVID-19 story will conclude.

Populations that may be especially at risk for the mental health consequences of isolation include children and adolescents, the elderly, people with cognitive disorders such as dementia, and those with pre-existing psychiatric illness.

We may end up with a generation of people becoming accepting of uncertainty or the complete opposite, with people who find uncertainty intolerable.

Being prepared for a number of possibilities will provide businesses with additional resilience and it is those who are able to monitor the situation and react to all eventualities who will fare best.

Advice

During difficult times, it is important individuals look after physical and mental health. This will not only help in the long-term, it will also help fight COVID-19 and other acute viral infections.

We recommend eating a healthy and nutritious diet, which helps the immune system to function properly. Limit alcohol consumption and avoid sugary drinks.

We suggest regular exercise including walking, outdoor leisure activities and gardening, as exercise changes the structure of the human brain, creating more potential for happiness.

Avoid smoking, as smoking can increase your risk of developing severe COVID-19 disease.

Finally, reach out if you think you are suffering and need support.

Anvil Assist offers 24/7 medical rapid response and repatriation services. Multilingual operators. Call: +44 (0)20 3941 9019 Email: medicalrepats@anvilgroup.com

UK – NHS Mental Health charities 

US – Mental Health Organizations 

Europe – Mental Health Europe 

 

References

  1. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/07/05/india/india-fake-COVID-19-vaccine-scam-intl-hnk/index.html
  2. https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncy.22364
  3. https://www.verywellmind.com/loneliness-causes-effects-and-treatments-2795749
  4. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/COVID-19-19-mental-health-and-wellbeing-surveillance-report/2-important-findings-so-far
  5. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11332-021-00791-2