COVID-19 was declared to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) in January 2020. The coronavirus had already been spreading from country to country by then, which eventually led to the virus being labelled a global pandemic. Though the frontline issues associated with this outbreak are related to health care and equipment shortages, mental health concerns are cropping up as a secondary impact on the populations affected by the pandemic.
COVID-19 offers a unique learning opportunity for students interested in or already pursuing an MPH degree. The outbreak serves as a real-life example of public health responses, areas where officials fall short, and issues that come about during emergencies like this one.
When considering the potential mental health issues around COVID-19, these are some of the top concerns to be aware of:
- Various factors of COVID-19 cause mental duress, such as fear of illness, isolation and economic uncertainty
- Everyone responds to stressful situations differently
- Common symptoms of mental health issues during a pandemic include anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, loneliness, depression and traumatic stress
- Finding ways to cope with stress and other symptoms related to COVID-19 can make individuals and communities grow stronger
COVID-19 Has Caused Upheaval to People’s Lives at Every Level
People around the world have changed their daily lives to help reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19. Social distancing mandates mean that everyone needs to spread out and become intentionally more isolated than ever before. Such a perspective shift on its own can cause stress and uncertainty, but there is much more to consider for people in a variety of different situations.
Mental Health Considerations for the General Populace
Coronavirus lockdown orders from one country to the next—or one state to the next in the U.S.—and the resulting mental health effects vary. However, many people report feeling a shift in mental well-being.
New York Post recently reported that according to a survey conducted at Keio University and other institutions in Tokyo, 35% of telecommuting workers state that their mental health has deteriorated amid the lockdown.
Study respondents clarified their reason for feeling a sense of depression or anxiety, sharing that they had trouble separating their work and personal lives, which is a common issue among freelancers and telecommuters. However, those situations are often a matter of choice for home workers, allowing people to ease into a new lifestyle. Additional issues reported include lack of activity and struggles to effectively communicate with co-workers and management.
Workers are not the only people in the general populace struggling with widespread lockdown orders. Anyone who needs to visit the grocery store may feel a sense of stress and anxiety, trying to abide by the six-feet social distancing recommendations. Add to the fact that people are wearing masks and gloves, and it is a shift in worldview in an instant, and people’s brains need to catch up with such a strange new reality.
Here are a few ways that stress affects people during an infectious disease outbreaks:
- Worry and fear about one’s own health and the health of loved ones
- Schedules change quickly and erratically, cause changes in sleep and eating patterns
- Challenges to concentration, especially since working in new conditions
- Increased issues with chronic health problems due to the inability to visit a physician regularly or because of the wear and tear of stress on the body
- Worsening of mental health conditions since it is more challenging to seek counseling in-person
- Increased reliance on addictive substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, excessive eating and other drugs
Mental Health Considerations for Healthcare Professionals Treating COVID-19 Sufferers
First responders, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers all stand on the frontline amid the COVID-19 health crisis. Attending to patients in such a dire situation would prove difficult enough, but worse still, the medical community struggles to gain access to sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks. Further, the impending lack of respirators and testing kits cause additional stress in the healthcare community. (4) All of this on top of the basic fears because of the personal risk of contracting COVID-19 or exposing their loved ones to the virus, and it is no wonder that healthcare workers face a huge amount of stress.
Public health leaders care about the well-being of those in the healthcare industry and are monitoring the situation and searching for ways to help these dutiful workers do their jobs while staying healthy, physically and mentally.
Mental Health Considerations for Parents, Teachers and Caretakers of Children
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights that it is reasonable for adults and children to feel distressed. Children feel limited regarding the ways, places and times that they can play together. Going outside to play in the fresh air is a common strategy in managing fear, worry and stress in children. Parents are struggling to find solutions.
Adults who care for children may consider applying some of the following strategies:
- Get all the facts via trusted resources, such as the CDC, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
- Establish a routine in lieu of school, such as setting study times, breaks in the backyard and online games sessions with friends
- Encourage self-care, such as exercise, reading, and spending quality time with siblings and parents
- Allow children to stay connected with school friends using apps like Skype, Facetime and Zoom for “virtual play dates”
Everyone Responds to COVID-19 In Their Own Way
While there are a few basic responses to infectious disease outbreaks, everyone is different and responds according to factors such as background, upbringing and the community in which they live. There are some individuals, therefore, who may experience more severe mental health impacts from the stress of COVID-19:
- Senior citizens who have chronic diseases and are at a higher risk for severe illness
- Teens and children who cannot socialize through regular school attendance, sports or other social activities
- People responding to COVID-19 in an official capacity, such as healthcare workers and first responders
- People who already suffer from mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and substance use
Just as everyone responds uniquely to infectious disease outbreaks, it is important to find equally unique ways to help each population manage their response to them.
How Public Health Officials Can Facilitate Better Mental Health Care On All Fronts
Healthcare communication leaders and public health officials can help find solutions and counter stigma for mental health issues during the COVID-19 response. Current public health professionals and students seeking to enter the profession with a Master of Public Health Degree stand to learn a great deal from the COVID-19 outbreak to prepare to effectively, quickly and fully attend to the mental health concerns of diverse populations.