How Covid-19 set off a mental health time bomb
There is hardly any individual or society that has not been affected by the social and economic stress caused by Covid-19. Millions are still out of work globally, sacked or furloughed as companies and organisations went under.
In June 2020, the African Union noted that nearly 20 million jobs, both in the formal and informal sectors, were threatened with destruction. Eurostat, a Directorate-General of the European Commission, estimated that over 15 million men and women in the European Union were unemployed in August 2020.
In Asia, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Asian Development Bank warned in August that employment prospects for 663 million youth were dim, with between 10-15 million jobs threatened by the pandemic. ILO noted that “work arrangements and conditions have changed considerably due to the Covid-19 pandemic, bringing new psychosocial challenges for the health and well-being of workers.”
Now, the above unemployment figures show the magnitude of the psycho-social crisis caused by the ravages of Covid-19. Mental illness is not just a health issue. According to a Lancet Commission report published in November 2018, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost due to mental illness every year globally. Further, the report says that mental Illness will cost the world 16 trillion USD by 2030.In addition to aggravated social unrest, mental illness also poses a serious risk to national security and rule of law and order as societies become dysfunctional. The growing economic recession has created anxiety about the future for those who are directly and indirectly affected. The youth are definitely frustrated after passing through many years of school, only to hit a dead end. Moreover, families are falling apart as breadwinners become financially vulnerable.
Some measures instituted by governments like lockdowns, social distancing and working from home disoriented many people, notwithstanding their creed, race, gender, academic level, social or economic class. The feeling of being grounded and helpless resulted in widespread panic, with little or no hope for a brighter tomorrow. The closing of social spaces aggravated the sense of loneliness as people lacked recreational spaces.
Frontline workers in various sectors were also affected as a result of constantly managing trauma, particularly when the pandemic was at its peak. Both health and medical workers experienced mental torment every day as they struggled to save lives. They also feared for their own health due to the risk of contracting the virus. The pandemic itself was a big source of fear and stress for people due to the fear of losing their lives or that of their dependants. The closure of houses of worship for months on end also affected millions of the congregants, who usually sought out these places of refuge for spiritual nourishment to maintain a level of sanity in a drastically changing world.
The zenith of the current mental health crisis was the spiralling of social ills including depression, suicide, suicidal tendencies, domestic violence, rape and divorce. The World Health Organisation said coronavirus had a negative impact on brain health through various neurological manifestations and the exacerbation of underlying or pre-existing psychological conditions.
In order to address this malady before it turned into a pandemic, health authorities used innovative psychosocial interventions like giving emergency telephone lines for mental health sufferers, establishing mental health clinics and sending out counsellors to vulnerable individuals and communities. These measures helped alleviate the situation a bit but did not really chip at the insurmountable health challenges.
Communities have a critical role to play in managing mental health. “I am my brother’s keeper” needs to be practiced more often. Due to widespread social isolation, individuals must seek out one another for comfort and assistance where necessary. Such simple gestures can be reassuring to many right now living on the edge, before they engage in self-destruction.
— The writer is a PhD student in International Relations.