By Mohani Niza
The Covid-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on many areas of society. One particular area is the mental and emotional health of everyday people, regardless whether they have pre-existing mental health issues before or otherwise.
Academicians from various universities, including those in England and Sweden, in their paper ‘Multidisciplinary research priorities for the COVID-19 pandemic: a call for action for mental health science’ published in The Lancet early this month, said these effects include heightened stress, depression, anxiety and a rise in self-harm and suicide.
They said that while Covid-19 affects whole sections of societies, some groups particularly feel the extra burden. This includes people with low-income, refugees, people trapped in domestic violence situations, people living with co-occurring diseases, healthcare workers exposed to the stress of handling patients, rural communities, and so forth.
Interviews conducted by Healthcare Asia found this is true in Malaysia as well. The interviewees cited loss of income and pre-existing mental health conditions as compounding their health problems further during this pandemic.
Kas, 24, a freelance writer and social media strategist in the Klang Valley, is very worried that her income will be affected in the coming months, especially because she has her grandmother and two brothers to support. She said: “My anxiety is mixed about work and future, but also about what happens after. The job market will now be completely shifted even after the virus scares fade.” Kas has mild Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and anxiety. “This anxiety is definitely heightened now because of the current events,” she said.
Jade, 26, from Penang also told Healthcare Asia that she has been deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. She was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), panic disorder and depression in May last year. Jade said: “The physical manifestation of my mental illness is the most disruptive as they often result in me being unable to do daily activities. They commonly include stomach and bowel problems, racing heart, panic attacks, high sensitivity to sounds and crowds and headaches,” adding: “In general, my mental illness has affected my identity, thoughts and emotions. This includes racing and intrusive thoughts, low self-esteem, difficulty socialising, mental fogs and occasional suicidal ideations.” Jade is particularly worried about the inaccessibility of mental health services during this time, saying: “Our stretched health services and MCO make me feel that there are no safety nets if I spiralled during this period. So, my biggest concern is surviving this pandemic from Covid-19 and suicide.”
Ellen Whyte, a British counselling psychologist practicing online in South East Asia and the Middle East, has found mixed responses from her clients during this pandemic. There are those who feel relieved to stay at home during the lockdown, such as introverts who feel a respite from mandatory socialising at work.
Ellen told Healthcare Asia: “Lockdowns affect the depressed in different ways. Some are enjoying the time for reflection and healing; others really miss the value of connecting. For those who feel cut off and who suffer for it, Internet speed and reliability can make the difference between good mental health and bad.”
She added that she is very much concerned for people who have been locked up with their abusers: “It depends on where they are, but for most, there is no help. The violence is heartbreaking.”
Advice to health authorities and policy-makers
Ellen said that most of her clients live in places where there is little to no mental health services and struggle to afford even basic healthcare. “Until there is enough money for that, and there are enough people trained to do the actual work, I think we should just do the best we can,” Ellen said.
She added: “If I could wave a magic wand, I'd say that the best step forward long-term is for leaders to promote equality. Everyone needs equal access to education, health, jobs and justice, no matter their gender, race, orientation, religion or caste. It is inequality that prevents positive social connections, an important ingredient for good mental health”.
“At a personal level, too many parents, spouses and teachers bully and beat kids, and too many bosses bully and abuse workers. In many places this abuse is normalised. If everyone started stepping up and stopping that nasty cycle, a lot of mental health issues would disappear,” Ellen said further.
Who to contact if you need someone to talk to
Daily ways to cope
Malaysian private clinical psychologist Vizla Kumaresan said: “I have seen a lot of advice to focus on what you can control. This is good to remember but also to recognise that control does not mean control of external factors. Regular breathing and relaxation exercises will help people feel they can at least control their bodily reactions to the stress from various factors. Maintaining a regular sleep/wake cycle is more important now than ever.”
She also recommended the following:
Vizla said: “Many people feel like they are burdening others when they ask for help. This needs to be overcome. This is a completely new situation that many of us do not know how to deal with. It is perfectly okay to ask for help.”
She added: “Now is the time to be open to doing things in new or novel ways. This will be challenging, but being stuck with old ways of doing things may not be feasible now.”