COVID-19 was an unequal pandemic, with inconvenient to impossible circumstances. This has led to very different mental health outcomes, which have yet to be resolved, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day, on October 10, is ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’.
Although not enough work has been done to quantify the effects of the past 18 months, studies show a dramatic rise in the prevalence of mental health issues due to the pandemic. Besides the patients with the virus, psychosocial distress has featured more widely due to the impact of societal controls, physical distancing, and national lockdowns.
This has manifested in depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and sleep problems. Financial and economic issues have also contributed to mental health problems, particularly in countries with larger outbreaks, low health system preparedness, and high economic vulnerability.
Even in developed countries, access to mental care has always been for the privileged, and the pandemic made this even more obvious. Support services – especially residential programmes – had to stop due to physical distancing. An increase in domestic violence added another layer of trauma.
More widely, different generations were affected in adverse ways. Young people at university – especially those away from home – had to grow up very quickly while also missing out on formative years and developmental milestones. Older adults grappled with the loss of social interaction, community, and family on which they depend.
Anxiety became a baseline response for many people. This wasn’t irrational in the early days when we had no idea what was happening – it is a necessary reaction when faced with imminent danger. But, along with despair and hopelessness, it is very contagious among families or colleagues and can lead to even more serious issues.
These emotions were compounded by the uncertainty of not knowing when the pandemic would end. Humans can deal with problems when we know what they are, but uncertainty is one of the biggest challenges for the human psyche, and this lack of control fed the anxiety, which fuelled a collective trauma.
It was interesting to see the different responses to this predicament. Some would cling to information that confirmed their fear and paranoia. Others would just shut themselves off and become oblivious to events; or do the opposite and obsess over the science.
It was also confronting for those who have been led to believe in the concept of ‘creating your own reality’, or in hyper-democracies where people do not like being told what to do. The fact is, there must be some element of compromise in any functioning society, especially when faced with events like this, which have happened many times in history.
More traditional, collective societies fared better, where it was easier to impose social measures. For example, here in the UAE there is a sense of solidarity stemming from the fact that we have all chosen to be here. The government repaid this faith by introducing as much certainty as was possible into a very uncertain situation.
There was no controversy, double standards, or people worrying that they wouldn’t be taken care of. That really made a difference with citizens and residents at a crucial time.
To borrow a phrase that is sadly only used in relation to economic recovery, we must learn the lessons of the past 18 months so that we can build back better from the pandemic. This was a ‘life-quake’ for many millions of people, and we must deal with the aftershocks, individually and collectively.
Patience and compassion are vital tools for recovery. We will exit at different times and in different ways, and we must do this at our own pace. Check your vulnerabilities, examine how you make this transition, and be mindful of the friction that has been caused from so many different perspectives of the same event.
We must also learn that mental health cannot be taken for granted. It must be protected and nurtured in an ongoing process of self-care, self-awareness, and self-support. And when we recover, we can support others. Good mental health is something that can be shared.
Mental health should also be viewed as a basic human right that is integrated into basic care for everybody, rather than as an additional perk for the few. It’s incredible how far early intervention can go in preventing serious outcomes. The cost of not dealing with issues is so much larger because problems build and get passed on.
The same research paper that I mentioned earlier recommends post-COVID-19 studies on the mental health status of the general population at a global level.
It says the improvement of screening systems and prevention, prompt multidisciplinary management, and research on the social and economic burden of the pandemic, are crucial to achieving better outcomes for the health of our populations.
The psychosocial consequences of the pandemic are a global burden, with stark differences between individuals and countries. These must be taken seriously, for the good of everyone.
The recovery must be equal.
Dr. Vedrana Mladina is the Associate Director of Counseling and Clinical Psychologist at NYU Abu Dhabi