When the COVID-19 pandemic started to take the world by storm, we knew that it would be difficult, but nobody knew how difficult it could be.
We have been tackling various challenges even before the pandemic. Now, with the challenges brought by COVID-19ーrestricted movements, temporary unemployment, working from home, business closures, lack of physical contact with other family members, friends and colleaguesーlife has become more overwhelming for many.
It is normal to experience fear, and stress during this time as we are facing uncertainty, but the level of anxiety differs from person to person. Understanding and recognizing the impact of the pandemic on our overall health, especially on our mental health, is critical.
What is mental health? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is an integral and essential part of health. The WHO constitution states: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." This definition implies that mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities. It is a state of well-being in which we realize that we can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and can make a contribution to our community.
WHO further reiterates: “Mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life.” It is important at every stage of life, from childhood through adulthood.
Many factors can affect our mental health which can lead to mental health problems or illnessesーbiological factors (genes and brain chemistry), life experiences (trauma and abuse) and family history.
What is mental illness? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental illnesses are occasional or long-lasting conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, or behavior, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.
Mental illnesses are common In the United States. More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime; 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year; and 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.
The pandemic has greatly affected the lives of those who have serious mental problems. According to a survey conducted by WHO, 93% of the countries around the world have had their mental health services disrupted or halted. While many countries have adopted telemedicine or teletherapy to overcome in-person services disruption, there are notable disparities in the uptake of these interventions. More than 80% of high-income countries reported deploying telemedicine and teletherapy to bridge gaps in mental health, compared with less than 50% of low-income countries. Although 89% of countries reported in the survey that mental health and psychosocial support is part of their national COVID-19 response plans, only 17% of these countries have full additional funding for covering these activities. The WHO urges countries to allocate funds for the promotion, protection, and restoration of mental health.
Mental illness and poor mental health are not the same things. When our mental health is not what we would want it to be, that is poor mental health. A person can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness. Likewise, a person diagnosed with a mental illness can experience periods of physical, mental, and social well-being.
Our mental health can change over time, and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic are triggering that change. Surveys show a major increase in the number of adults in the U.S. who report symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression during the pandemic. Some have increased their use of alcohol or drugs to cope with their fears about the pandemic, though in reality, these substances can worsen anxiety and depression. Staying positive is just not easy when our normal routines are interrupted.
The fear of getting the virus added with the possible loss of a family member due to COVID can be overpowering.
How to cope with COVID-19 stress? CDC has suggested few healthy ways:
- Taking breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories. It is good to be informed, but hearing about the pandemic constantly can be upsetting.
- Taking breaks from social media. Misinformation and rumors spreading on social media can make life feel out of control.
- Taking care of our body by eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, avoiding excessive alcohol, tobacco, and substance abuse, continuing with the routine preventive measures such as getting flu vaccines, and getting vaccinated by COVID-19 vaccine.
- Relax and recharge. Make time to unwind.
- Connect with others. Talk away our concerns and worries to someone we trust.
- Connect with the community or faith-based organizations. While social distancing measures are in place, we may connect through social media, by phone, or email.
How to know if we are experiencing mental health problems? Despite best efforts to stay healthy and positive, if we may find ourselves feeling helpless, sad, angry, irritable, hopeless, anxious, or afraid, have trouble concentrating on typical and routine tasks, changes in appetite, unexplained body aches, and pains, or difficulty sleeping for several days in a row, it’s time to ask for help.
Recognizing the symptoms of mental health problems can help us to know if we need to seek professional help. Getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step in a treatment plan. Treatments for mental illness vary by diagnosis and by person. There’s no “one size fits all” treatment. Treatment options can include medication, counseling (therapy), social support, and education.