While countries around the world continue to mobilize to contain the spread of the coronavirus, mental health experts say we can’t lose sight of another alarming issue: the long-term mental health impact the pandemic is going to leave on society.
“What I think we’re facing here is a very traumatic event for a lot of people,” said Mark Henick, a mental health strategist and speaker. “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.
“You bear down and you just get through it, which is what we’re all trying to do right now. I think that we’re still very much in the trauma phase — the active trauma phase of this pandemic.”
But what happens after physical-distancing measures are lifted? What comes after the pandemic is over and people are able to get back to whatever their normal may be?
“There’s going to be residual stress, depression, certainly financial pressures, learning how to re-engage with the world in this new way,” Henick said.
“That’s gonna be difficult for a lot of people. And those are exactly the kinds of risk factors that lead to increasing rates of depression, anxiety and even suicide.”
Individuals had little time to prepare for, or even process, all the consequences of strict health measures put into place by countries to contain the spread of COVID-19: job losses, economic collapse and the complete uprooting of everyday life and relationships.
For Maggie Hou, who has generalized anxiety disorder, staying at home and losing her support system has been very difficult.
“I shut down because I don’t know what to do. I’m not prepared for this. I did not run a rehearsal of the situation in my head,” the McMaster University student said.
“It’s exhausting to not worry, because it is practically impossible for me to not worry.”
Henick says for those who have anxiety and depression, the pandemic is exacerbating their symptoms.
He is also concerned for those who have never had any mental health issues in the past and are now facing a life disruption without fully digesting the long-term impact it may have on them.
A large body of scientific studies shows that there is a close relationship between indicators such as unemployment and mental health and suicide.
In fact, research out of the great recession of 2008 reveals that a one per cent increase in unemployment was accompanied by a one per cent increase in the rates of suicide in the U.S.
Henick explains there is a peak-and-valley response in our nervous system when faced with trauma. Right now we are at a peak, in which we are engaging with the immediate threat of the pandemic. You go into survival mode, which can be very taxing on a person’s mental health.
“And in fact, it doesn’t actually let you think through or process what’s happening to you. Its only interest is in getting and keeping you alive and keeping you safe,” Henick said.
Once the pandemic is over, there will be a valley, in which we recover from that threat. But the problem is, going back to baseline without support can take a lot longer than we may think.
After the threat passes, Henick says people can start to retreat or fall into depression or find other ways of dissociating themselves with the trauma they experienced.
“Our mental illness can almost become an infection itself. So that’s where the valley would come in. We peak from the emotional response to the immediate trauma, the fear, the anxiety, and then we retreat back and then hopefully we come back to normal,” he added.
“But not everybody does. Some people stay stuck either way at the top of that peak or they stay stuck down at the bottom or anywhere in between.”
Hou says she’s been feeling as though she is in a state of paralysis by her constant worry for the health and safety of her family and friends. She’s not sure how she’s going to handle re-integrating back into school and work.
“How many breakdowns will I have?
“What about panic attacks and will I be able to go out into crowded places, even though coronavirus is not a problem any longer?”
Henick says there is evidence to suggest a mental health “pandemic” is coming after COVID-19, and is a real threat.
In Canada, we currently have universal medical care, but things like psychotherapy, which Henick says has proven to be an effective treatment for mental health problems, generally aren’t funded publicly.
Henick says the federal and provincial governments need to step up to make sure proper treatments and programs are funded so as many people as possible have access when in need — adding that everyone, including employers, will have a role to play.
“I think it’s important for employers, in particular, to realize when we start to loosen some of the restrictions that we’re currently facing that this needs to happen slowly, that we can’t go back to the way the world was overnight,” Henick said.
Hou says she already knows she won’t be able to go from zero to 100 right away and that she’s going to need strong social supports in place to move forward.
“I’m not sure if I’m returning to work afterwards because of the coronavirus and will I be able to feel safe at work or school,” she said. “That’s my biggest fear right now.
“And I hope that with the virus slowly dying down, my social supports like psychiatrist, counsellor, therapist, I’ll get those supports back slowly and help me with my current fears and uncertainties.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) also offer ways of getting help if you or someone you know may be suffering from mental health issues.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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