The global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has not only put people’s physical health at risk, it has also had a devastating effect on mental health. The disease has forced many to stay home fearing infection or possibly death.
The pandemic, which started in China in December 2019, has changed that shape of the world. It has led to the closures of borders and public spaces, and the suspension of most public services, schools and flights. Globally, the pandemic has infected 4.8m people and claimed the lives of 316,925.
With many countries putting into effect complete or partial lockdowns, among other precautionary measures, populations are finding they are spending a lot of time at home. This also means they no longer have access to regular social activities or other means of daily life.
In an April report, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said that “a total of 81% of the global workforce of 3.3 billion people have had their workplace fully or partly closed”. Many people have the added stress of losing their jobs due to the economic side-effects of the virus.
Last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the coronavirus “is not only attacking our physical health, it is also increasing psychological suffering, grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future.”
He added, “Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, are some of the greatest causes of misery in our world.”
Research published by King’s College London in the online journal Public Health found that quarantine measures are generally “an unsatisfactory experience for those enforced to go through them, as isolation from families and loved ones, distrusting of disease updates, boredom, are all factors that can cause tragic situations”.
The research that referenced 14 studies, found that “two studies reported the need to work and fear of loss of income as reasons for not adhering to quarantine protocols”.
“Participants also mentioned factors relating to ‘life carrying on’ outside of quarantine as reasons for not adhering,” the research continued. “Examples included needing to attend an important event or visiting family and friends.”
Depression, anxiety disorders increase
Dr Hesham Bahary, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Al-Azhar University partnered with the Abbasiya Mental Health Hospital on the psychological impacts of the coronavirus pandemic for adults and children.
Bahary told Daily News Egypt that they noticed an increase of depression and anxiety disorders with associated presentations, such as phobias, panic attacks, nervousness, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
He highlighted that increase in behavioural disorders, speech disorders, a tendency to violence, excessive nervousness, and anger were noticed in children and teenagers.
“As they have been isolated, not seeing friends or going to school, we noticed that some try to imitate cartoon characters, which results in what is known as identification with characters,” he said.
Many people report they avoid seeking help at psychiatrists’ clinics due to fears of potential infection, and because they cannot afford to pay the cost of medical examination and treatment, due to financial problems.
Bahary said that people can try to overcome the effects of quarantine or social isolation by taking up hobbies or activities that can be undertaken at home, such as reading and sports.
“Families could create participatory activities with their children and held cultural or artistic discussion over books or movies to overcome the effect of social distancing,” Bahary said.
In March, the Ministry of Health’s mental health department set up hotlines offering psychological support during coronavirus shutdown. The two telephone numbers are 080-8880700 and 0220816831.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been offering advice to people in lockdown to face the psychological impacts of the virus. These include staying connected to others even if online, maintaining social networks, practicing sports, sleeping well, eating healthily, and avoid continual exposure to news.
“I live in panic and fear”
Laila, 35 (who asked for her name to be changed), lives in Giza and has been suffering from severe depression and anxiety disorders since 2013. She does not trust online psychological consultations.
Speaking to Daily News Egypt, Laila said, “I do not trust such online consultations, I feel I will not be safe and that my conversations with the psychiatrist could be leaked.”
Since March, and with the increasing number of coronavirus infections in Egypt, the government has enforced a night time curfew. It has also shut down entertainment venues, cinemas, theatres and closed schools and universities, calling on citizens to stay home and commit to social distancing.
“Unfortunately, I can not afford to go to a psychiatrist these days, so I get my old prescription and take my antidepressant and benzodiazepines to handle my mental health during this difficult time,” she said. “I live in a state of panic and fear. I still have to go to work three days a week, and I fear I could contract coronavirus and transmit it to my ill mother who suffers from chronic diseases.”
Laila also said that she panicked on finding out that a neighbour had tested positive for the coronavirus, and was transferred to an intensive care unit.
She noted that now, she only works or sleeps, with no other activity during her day.
“I do not see my friends. I do not go to my college where I take part free studies. Before the coronavirus, I was able to handle my mental health through social activities, seeing friends and the people I love, as we share stories or problems,” Laila said, “I used to go to the cinema and spend good times. But now, I am deprived of all of this.”
She added, “However, the most difficult part is that you do not know when the pandemic will end or when an effective and safe vaccine will be found. Our life has been suspended, and only God knows when we will get it back.”
At the end, Laila noted, “Maybe normal people could handle this issue easier than us, we who suffer from mental health issues. We can not handle fears of losing our loved ones or panic from being sick and find no hospital for treatment.”
“I overeat or oversleep to handle loneliness, anxiety”
Mohamed (who asked for only his first name to be used) 27-year-old, who lives in Dubai for work, said his biggest fear is that one of his family members contracts the coronavirus whilst he remains trapped in the UAE.
“The coronavirus has had a bad effect on my psychological health, but I try to avoid facing the consequences through overeating, oversleeping and running from my thoughts,” Mohamed told Daily News Egypt.
“Sometimes I cry, sometimes I have nightmares. But overall I am trying to be fine by telling myself: What else will happen? I am far away from my family and I am not able to go to them if something bad happens,” Mohamed says. “I am not able to share with them the usual social moments such as spending Ramadan or Eid Al-Fitr with them, and I am alone here spending all my time working or sleeping to overcome anxiety, panic and loneliness.”
Mohamed said that pandemic has changed the world, and made the streets frightening.
“If I go out to buy something, I feel it is the end of the world, and the streets are like hospitals, people wearing face masks and afraid of contact or infections,” he said, adding, “Everything suddenly changed, and now we have to face this fact.”
Meanwhile, 30-year-old Cairo resident, Norah, (who also asked for her first name to be used) said that she lost her work due to the coronavirus, and she is now suffering from financial problems.
“The only money I have is from the March salary. My wedding was supposed to be in April. But of course, it was postponed due to the pandemic,” Noha told Daily News Egypt. “I am not OK, psychologically. Everything is bad, and it does not matter at all what will happen next.”