Pandemic-induced mental health issues on the rise

Hakim Hayat

Fazrin wakes up late, rushes straight to his laptop and starts preparing for his meeting. He works past midnight and feels tired the whole day.

Since the second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, he has been working from home and starting to feel the stress causing a detrimental toll on his physical health.

Azimah has lost all interest in life. She started isolating herself from everyone, including her family at home and spends most of her time sleeping or on social media. She has put on five kilogrammes of weight in the last two months.

Despite being a physical health problem, the COVID-19 crisis has germinated the seeds of a mental health problem. The pandemic has brought to the forefront that a good mental health structure is critical for the overall well-being of a society.

In Brunei Darussalam, the Ministry of Health (MoH) said that the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic towards the state of mental health of the people is apparent through the rising the number of calls made to the Hope Line 145 – the national mental health hotline.

The numbers have tripled since the second wave outbreak in August this year. Statistics from August to September showed 1,058 calls were recorded, with the number of calls pertaining to mental health advice and COVID-19 increasing.

A total of 700 calls were received in August, a significant increase to the previous average of 200 calls per month.

Statistics from the MoH also shown in the past year, Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Saleha (RIPAS) Hospital’s psychiatric services received an average of 400 to 500 patients every month.

A new study, published in medical journal The Lancet recently also highlighted the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, which has led to millions of new cases of depression and anxiety around the world, the study found.

The study looked at over 5,600 datasets from numerous surveys around the world focussing on the effect of the pandemic on mental health. They then conducted disease modelling to calculate the prevalence of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders due to COVID-19.

Researchers calculated that in 2020, the pandemic led to an additional 53 million cases of major depressive disorder and 76 million cases of anxiety disorder, representing an increase of 28 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively.

The researchers found that women were twice as likely to experience pandemic-induced major depressive disorder or anxiety disorder, compared to men. Researchers say this is due to women often the ones bearing additional responsibilities at home, in addition to lockdown and stay-at-home orders.

The Australian study also outlined how the pandemic itself had affected mental health.

Depression and anxiety from the pandemic were less common in older age groups and more common among younger individuals. People aged 20-24 had the highest cases of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder, which researchers believe due to unemployment and school closures disproportionately affecting their abilities to interact with their peers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many existing inequalities, and social determinants of mental health,” said study author Alize Ferrari in a news release.

Garber said that we still have “a very long way to go when it comes to acceptance and understanding of how people get into these situations and start to self-medicate for mental illnesses”.

She said that many people struggle to accept that they have a problem and are reluctant to reach out for help.

Areas hit hardest by the pandemic also tended to have higher rates of pandemic-induced depression and anxiety, as these were often the same areas that had strict lockdowns, the researchers found.

However, the study is not without its limitations as it largely focussed on high-income countries and the researchers acknowledge that their study was limited by a lack of data focussing on low and middle-income countries. In addition, most of the data was based on self-reported symptoms.

Nonetheless, the researchers said their findings underscore the need for policymakers to strengthen mental health systems.

“Promoting mental well-being, targetting factors contributing to poor mental health that have been made worse by the pandemic, and improving treatment for those who develop a mental disorder should be central to efforts to improve support services.

“Even before the pandemic, mental health-care systems in most countries have historically been under-resourced and disorganised in their service delivery,” said lead author Damian Santomauro in the news release.

“Meeting the demand for mental health services due to COVID-19 will be challenging but taking no action should not be an option.”

World Mental Health Day is observed annually on October 10. This year’s World Mental Health Day is focussed on ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’.