As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year, experts are warning that except mental health issues relating to the viral disease are properly addressed, there could be an explosion of depression, anxiety and other such conditions in years to come. YUSUFF MOSHOOD reports
As the COVID-19 pandemic enters the second year, mental health experts say the pandemic is already fueling a surge in cases of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
They also warn that except proactive measures are taken, there could be more cases of mental health issues long after the pandemic might have subsided.
According to a World Health Organisation survey of the impacts of COVID-19 on 28 African countries, the pandemic has increased the demand for mental health services.
The assessment, conducted last August, was part of the first global examination of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on access to mental health services
The survey stressed the urgent need for increased funding, noting that 37 per cent of the countries that responded reported that their COVID-19 mental health response plans are partially funded, while a further 37 per cent reported having no funds at all.
Speaking on the survey, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, had said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown, more than ever, how mental health is integral to health and well-being and must be an essential part of health services during outbreaks and emergencies.
“Isolation, loss of income, the deaths of loved ones and a barrage of information on the dangers of this new virus stir up stress levels and trigger mental health conditions or exacerbate existing ones.”
The WHO said its survey of mental health services took place in July and August 2020, disclosing that 27 of the 28 African nations that responded included mental health in their COVID-19 response plans, underscoring the growing recognition of the importance of this once-neglected area of health.
Fear of long-term impacts of COVID-19 on mental health
When asked how real is the fear that COVID-19 could fuel more cases of depression and anxiety long after the pandemic might have subsided, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital Yaba, Lagos, Dr. Dapo Adegbaju, said the fear was real.
“The fear is real and palpable. COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of effects on the mental health of Nigerians — ranging from the news that is aired about the pandemic to getting to know someone affected or loss of someone to the dreaded virus.
“There has been an increase in people coming to Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba, since the lockdown was eased. Anxiety disorders top the complaints,” he said.
Speaking with our correspondent, Dr. Adegbaju said that there has been a surge in cases of mental health issues, noting that more people are now having anxiety disorders.
The anxiety disorder, he said, usually starts from a phenomenon called the ‘worried self,’ adding that those with this disorder usually think about COVID-19 whenever someone close to them coughs or has a fever, even when the person does not have the virus.
“We have disorders like generalised anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. Some people may break down mentally due to the psychosocial events happening around them as a result of these disorders,” he said.
The consultant psychiatrist also stated that there is an increase in people trying to stay away from normal things or situations because of the fear of contracting COVID-19.
“Some people suffering obsessive compulsion disorders have practically been washing, not only their hands with soap and sanitisers, but also go up to the arms and shoulders in a bid to fight COVID-19.
“We are also having cases of mood disorders which include depression, bipolar disorder and mania.
“These particular disorders usually stem from the loss of jobs, loss of loved ones to the COVID-19 disease and loss of opportunities.
“Depression has severity (mild, moderate, severe) which can be accompanied by suicidal thoughts or actions,” he said.
The psychiatrist also stated that substance use disorder has been on the rise as people come up with all sorts of theories to combat COVID-19.
“The use of alcohol, Indian hemp and other substances has increased either through frustration as some claim or what they were told could prevent COVID-19 from affecting them,” Adegbaju said.
On what the nation should do to address the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on mental health, the psychiatrist said it has become more imperative to invest in mental health.
“We need to invest in mental health to take care of our citizens. Public sensitisation on mental health is also important,” he said.
Lack of access to mental health care as a challenge
Also speaking with PUNCH Healthwise, Clinical Psychologist and Family Life Therapist, Ghaneeyah Sulaiman-Olokodana said accessing mental health care is still a big problem in Nigeria.
“Sadly, even now, some people are still unable to access affordable mental health services.
“What the government and health authorities can do is to open up the channels for people to easily access mental health services via health insurance, just like they do for other medical challenges.
“If this can happen, more people will come out seeking for help, and practitioners can also be assured of payment via the health insurance scheme. It then becomes a Win-Win situation for everyone,” she said.
The psychologist affirmed that COVID-19 could have serious long-term impacts on mental health.
“Usually, when something major such as this current pandemic that the whole world is going through occurs, the effects linger on, even long after the pandemic itself might have ended.
“As expected, a lot of people are going through a lot these days. First, people are unable to interact socially like they used to, and this is putting a lot of strain on many relationships.
“And when family, friends and loved ones contract COVID-19 and have to be isolated, many more won’t get the chance to spend quality time with the people they care about.
“Also when people die from COVID-19 complications, the ones left behind will naturally experience some form of grief, which if not properly handled or treated, may lead to depression and other forms of mental distress,” she said.
Sulaiman-Olokodana explained that while physical distancing remains a key measure of preventing the spread of COVID-19, it has a negative psychological impact on people, especially the youth.
“In addition to other measures, physical or social distancing is one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to this virus and slow its spread.
“However, having to physically distance from someone you love such as friends, family, co-workers or even your faith-based community can be hard,” she said.
Mental health impacts of COVID-19 on youth
According to the psychologist, young men and women may be getting more affected by the pandemic.
“Having to practice physical distancing can feel like placing life on hold. But as we all know, the clock keeps ticking. Activities that would naturally bring people together: birthdays, internships, graduations, campus life, vacations, weddings, births, and funerals are just a sample of the many significant life events that young adults may have missed during COVID-19.
“It is therefore not surprising that social distancing and limits to gatherings have affected their ability to join friends and family in person to celebrate or grieve in typical ways.
“COVID-19 can affect young adults directly and indirectly. Beyond getting sick, many young adults’ social, emotional and mental well-being have also been impacted by the Pandemic. Thus, the trauma faced at this developmental stage may have long-term consequences across their lifespan.
“We must recognise and address their fear, stress and behaviour changes. As mental health practitioners, our job is to encourage them to practice healthy ways to cope with stress,” she said.
Need for psychosocial support
However, according to a Clinical Psychologist with the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital Yaba, Yaba, Olawunmi Oluwatosin, it ii necessary to start providing psychosocial support to Nigerians to prevent serious long-term mental health issues due to COVID-19.
According to Oluwatosin, the fear that there could be an explosion of mental health issues after COVID-19 might have ended is real, noting that it is important to properly manage the cases that are coming up now to reduce the enormity of future COVID-19 induced mental health problems.
“We need to have multidisciplinary mental health teams (psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, clinical psychologists, and other mental health professionals) to help.
“We also need to give correct information about COVID-19 with regular and accurate updates about the outbreak to the people.
“It is also necessary to work on the establishment of secure services centres to provide psychological counselling.
“There is an urgent need to reverse this trend and promote the cohesive extended family system that acts as a reservoir of social support in periods of adversity.
“The Nigerian government should also use this opportunity to fully implement the mental health policy and scale-up of mental health services through the integration of mental health services in primary health care centres,” she said.
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