First the fear of contagion, the risk of illness, the terror of losing a loved one and the torment of never finding one’s job again; then, the uncertainty of the future, what our life will be like and how long coexistence with the coronavirus will last, the question of how the world will be after COVID-19 and prolonged isolation at home is likely to compromise our personal balance and mental health.
Mirella Ruggeri, head of the Psychiatric Clinic of the Polyclinic and director of the territorial service of Verona, in northern Italy, one of the areas most affected by COVID-19 in Europe, warns that the psychological consequences of the pandemic will be seen for several months. In addition to the economy, this is another factor that policy makers and governments must consider in planning the second phase of the pandemic which includes the gradual reopening of activities and the consequent return to normal.
The Italian expert explains that the new coronavirus is a unique phenomenon in its social, relational and mental health dynamics. None of the current generations has ever experienced it before. There are obviously different positions for the risk of mental health, those who suffer from the infection, their family members, health workers, and then there is an underlying traumatic aspect that the whole population suffers. Two are the most vulnerable polarities from the point of view of mental health: the elderly, forced into super isolation, and the children and adolescents who have had the strongest changes in their daily life.
In the United States, the novel pandemic also affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders. In a recent KFF poll, nearly half (45%) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. As the pandemic wears on, it is likely the mental health burden will increase as measures taken to slow the spread of the virus, such as social distancing, business and school closures, and shelter-in-place orders, lead to greater isolation and potential financial distress. KFF reported.
From the previous epidemics of Sars and Ebola in China and in the Asian region in general, doctors and psychologists have observed that this epidemic strongly favours the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder. The damage caused and the symptoms tend to appear even more severely six months after the cessation of the traumatic event. For the authorities this means maintaining continuous monitoring in the coming months.
According to experts, the trauma will be metabolized together with the new normal. Data arriving from Asia, where the epidemic first developed, show that the post-traumatic stress disorder normally present in 4-5% of the population increases up to 41%. For depression, the increase is at least 7%. In addition, other related symptoms have developed such as anxious aspects, phobic aspects and in general an increase in the state of alert, as well as reactions of anger, phobias and sense of injustice.
In January 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. In March 2020, WHO made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic confirming that this time of crisis is generating stress throughout the population. WHO Department of Mental Health and Substance Use also developed a series of messages that can be used in communications to support mental and psychosocial well-being in different target groups during the outbreak.
WHO recommends, for example, to not refer to people with the disease as “COVID-19 cases”, “victims” “COVID-19 families” or “the diseased”. They are “people who have COVID-19”, “people who are being treated for COVID-19”, or “people who are recovering from COVID-19”, and after recovering from COVID-19 their life will go on with their jobs, families and loved ones. It is important to separate a person from having an identity defined by COVID-19, in order to reduce stigma. The organization also suggests to minimize watching, reading or listening to news about COVID-19 that causes you to feel anxious or distressed.
For health care workers feeling under pressure is a likely experience. WHO says stressing that it is quite normal to be feeling this way in the current situation. “Stress and the feelings associated with it are by no means a reflection that you cannot do your job or that you are weak. Managing your mental health and psychosocial well-being during this time is as important as managing your physical health”. WHO affirmed addressing doctors and nurses, recommending them to avoid using unhelpful coping strategies such as use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs.