March 31, 2020 12:17:39 am
The symptoms of COVID-19 infection are well-documented. There is a growing body of literature on the epidemiological aspects of the outbreak. Its social and economic fallouts are becoming apparent. However, conversations on people’s emotional well-being during the pandemic are, by and large, taking place only within specialised circles. There are pressing reasons that this discourse is urgently mainstreamed. During times of strife, such as natural calamities, wars and economic hardships, people reach out to each other. The novel coronavirus outbreak, however, circumscribes such behaviour. To combat the virus, millions have been forced to isolate themselves, sometimes even within the same house, from those they interact with every day — colleagues, family, friends. At the same time, the outbreak and lockdowns have plunged the world into uncertainty. All this, warn experts, will take a toll on people’s mental health, especially those who already suffer from anxiety disorders.
In the first week of February, when the outbreak hadn’t yet taken the form of a pandemic, a paper in the medical journal, Lancet, pointed out that “patients with confirmed COVID-19 may experience fear of the consequences of infection with a potentially fatal new virus, and those in quarantine might experience loneliness, anxiety and anger”. The paper, by seven Chinese researchers, also warned that even the onset of symptoms — fever, breathlessness and cough — could lead to anxiety and mental distress. With India reporting at least three coronavirus-related suicides in less than a week — according to reports, seven people took their lives in Kerala due to depression caused by not being able to buy alcohol — the country’s public health authorities need to take the warnings of the Chinese researchers seriously. They also need to pay attention to the emotional well-being of healthcare workers. Mental health experts point out that such workers may experience fear of the contagion and panic at the prospect of spreading it to their families, friends and colleagues. A study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, based on a survey of 34 hospitals in China, for instance, reported that “more than 70 per cent of the doctors and nurses who attended coronavirus patients have experienced psychological distress”.
Many countries, including India, have set up helplines for mental health issues precipitated by the pandemic. It’s imperative that information on these helplines is made widely available. Experts, including the authors of the Lancet article, warn that psychological scars of the pandemic could be long-term. They recommend regular mental health screenings of healthcare workers and patients who have been through quarantines. It is imperative that the battle on the mental health front is now integrated into the war against COVID-19.
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