Even if you haven’t come down with Covid-19, the illness has had an impact on your mental state, writes Amil Umraw.

In many ways, the novel coronavirus has been a harbinger of doom.

Beyond the devastating reckoning for those who lost their loved ones, the economy has been pushed into a sharp contraction, roiling the GDP and decimating as many as two million jobs.

But a new toll of Covid-19 has started to emerge – one exacted on one’s mental health – the extent of which has not yet been felt.

Almost nine months have passed since the first Covid-19 case was recorded on South African shores, and the passage of time has exposed the disparity between then and now.

As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, global society attempts to adjust to a new normal.

Our mental well-being has had to evolve.

This evolution has had to increase individuals’ capacity to cope with multiple traumas and significant changes simultaneously.

While this has happened, the occurrence of psychological distress during this evolution has been unavoidable.

Bearing the brunt

No individual has been left unaffected, including healthcare and frontline workers who have borne the brunt of the deadly contagion.

A key driver of the pressure placed upon one’s mental health is forced separation, formalised by the South African government’s disaster regulations and enforced physical distancing measures.

According to research titled “Psychological distress related to Covid-19 – the contribution of continuous traumatic stress”, which was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, stress associated with the pandemic can become a seed for mental disorders.

The study found:

“Individuals who have previously been exposed to a traumatic event or have experienced continuous traumatic stress are particularly vulnerable to the possible development of a mental illness related to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

This dovetails with an assault of socio-economic factors contributing to the mire, such as diminished or complete loss of income, a moratorium on social relationships and living alone during the pandemic.

“[This could] lead to a higher possibility for at least one psychiatric symptom related to the distress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic,” the study established.

The symptoms related to the distress brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, examined by researchers, have been found to be personal and varied.

A study conducted this year by Rohde, Jefsen, Norremark, Danielsen and Ostergaard and published in journal Acta Neuropsychiatrica, explored the clinical notes taken by healthcare professionals when individuals admitted themselves or were taken in to treat a mental disorder.

Symptoms such as anxiety and depression, were seen most frequently as well as high levels of stress.

“These notes showed that words strongly associated with factors around the Covid-19 pandemic came through for a significant number of patients. Furthermore, a portion of these patients had a pre-existing mental condition that was further aggravated by the pandemic.”

According to a medical journal which centred on psychiatric illness associated with the pandemic and published by UpToDate, insomnia was the most common symptom experienced by Covid-19 patients, followed by impaired attention or concentration.

“Covid-19 also significantly impacts on the central nervous system of an individual that has been infected and studies have also suggested that this affects cognitive and neurological function,” research found.

It further revealed:

“Anxiety and depression were also common and were associated with contracting the virus and the consequences thereof. Cognitive responses were also impacted on as memory impairment and general confusion was experienced by a significant number of patients. Delirium was also a common manifestation as a result of Covid-19 due to the physical impact of an increased fever.”

And those who have been spared by the virus have to contend with the strictures of social isolation.

Anxiety, depression and stress have all increased.

“These symptoms also have underlying issues that could have stemmed from changes to the stability of several factors within everyday life. Post-traumatic stress disorder has also become prevalent within individuals, particularly individuals who have been directly or indirectly affected by Covid-19.”

Pivotally important healthcare workers have had little reprieve.

Since the discovery of Covid-19 in December last year, tremendous pressure has been exacted on health infrastructure and essential services across the globe.

Health systems have been overwhelmed as the virus spread at an alarming rate.

Loss of frontline workers

The pandemic has also seen the loss of a significant number of healthcare and frontline workers as they have become infected when attempting to treat patients.

As a result of the constant contact with patients who have tested positive, frontline and healthcare workers have also had to spend extended amounts of time in isolation, away from their families and loved ones to ensure that they don’t become infected.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Emergency Medicine, psychiatric symptoms noted in healthcare workers were aggravated by the loss of colleagues.

“The trauma of these losses has also caused symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder in many frontline and healthcare workers,” they found.

“The significantly higher risk healthcare and frontline workers face of being infected has also caused an increase in the stress and pressure being experienced by frontline workers.”

A hallmark of the pathogen which has spread across the globe is its indiscrimination, and so too is the malaise of mental health turmoil.

This has been underscored in the local context by the spectre of a second wave, or a new resurgence of the virus.

Now, more than ever, it is paramount that mental health is highlighted and given the importance it requires. It is only in doing this and working together as a global community, that the pandemic will be overcome and the trauma it has caused becomes something of the past.

– Amil Umraw is a freelance writer.

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