Written by: Dr. Sylnita Swartz-Filies (PhD: Educational Psychology)
Article source: Supplied 

COVID-19 has temporarily shut down many societies across the world and caused havoc on many levels. Responding to COVID-19 proved to be an immense challenge since it is an exploration into unknown territory. By now we know that COVID-19 is a multidimensional health problem with many devastating results. The citizens of this country were warned to prepare themselves for the worst when COVID-19 is expected to reach its peak around August. Government responded swiftly and fully functional field hospitals were set up to assist existing health facilities with the possible influx of COVID-19 patients. COVID-19 has challenge individuals, society and authorities to reframe thinking around how to manage future infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters and challenges related to it. The Coronavirus is not only affecting people physically but also the mental health status of populations, communities, and individuals including children, adults, the aged and families world-wide. There is no exception with regards to social economic circumstances and class. The virus has proven to be some kind of equaliser.

People are talking about the new ‘normal’ but can we truly define this new ‘normal’ clearly? What we do know is that this new ‘normal’ was forced on us without sufficient warning and without proper preparation. It has changed the

way we perceive the world we function and live in and changed the operations in households, schools and the workplace. The level of stress associated with the virus justifiably increase worry in most people especially in those who has been infected, their families or the people they have been in contact with. Many families, friends and colleagues are dealing with the unexpected loss of loved ones of whom some were single-parents or breadwinners. People they never got the chance to say good bye to properly, not even by attending a funeral. The daily updates on the increased number of infections and deaths are a constant reminder of the unknown. Getting infected and being faced with your own mortality becomes a reality. Everybody is trying to deal with the situation, within their own unique circumstances and capabilities. We are encouraged to remain positive and celebrate physical recoveries for which we are certainly grateful, but what about recovering mentally? Many people might be left behind with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression and Anxiety related challenges, just to mention a few.

It is of importance to mention that this pandemic may have worsen existing mental health problems in many people because of the unique combination of the unknown public health crisis, social distancing, isolation, loneliness and diminished contact with family and friends, etc. At present there is a lot of emphasis placed on the importance of adhering to precautionary measures in order to reduce the risk of contracting the virus. For those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) this health crisis can turn into a nightmare. Washing and sanitising of hands, social distancing, wearing of masks, sneezing and coughing in your bent elbow, disposing tissues immediately and keeping surfaces clean can become very challenging for OCD sufferers. Contamination compulsions are stressful and sufferers are placed in an intricate position where they now need to decide which behaviours are within their normal limits

and which evokes disproportionate anxiety within them. Anxieties might hamper the functioning of individuals. COVID-19 furthermore exposes the profound social inequalities within our society which leaves the vulnerable more vulnerable than ever before. Unemployment, job losses and the economic and financial challenges which accompany it has become an even bigger stressor for many. Issues and realities related to food security takes centre stage. Since the beginning of the lockdown an increase in the number of case with regards to abuse and violence against women, children and other vulnerable groupings were reported on social media. The aged who are residing in old age homes are unable to receive any visitors for at least two weeks before the national lockdown. This is for their own physical well-being but they are longing for their loved ones and vice versa. Many frontline workers, like hospital personnel live in daily fear. Some teachers and learners are reported to be anxious because of the unknown. People are concerned that they may contract the virus. All these realities and factors impact negatively on the mental health status of individuals, families and societies and cannot be ignored. As many countries are moving to lower levels of lockdown and reopening economic and tourist opportunities it might seem that things are slowly moving back to normality. Human beings are resilient but one should not forget that many people are emotionally wounded by the Coronavirus and walking around scarred because they don’t know how to ask for help or access services. Family members and friends are encouraged to look out for signs and symptoms of emotional stress in loved ones. We need to be aware that many individuals are currently in need of mental health and psycho-social support services. A rise in the number of people who might at a later stage present with symptoms related to processing mental health challenges following the aftermath of the pandemic are to be expected.

Addressing the physical health challenges caused by pandemics are important but of equal importance is addressing issues around the mental health challenges that results from it, or existing mental health challenges that are exacerbated by the virus. Mental health is an integral part of overall health and the provision of mental health and support services remain a priority. Individuals must be clear on where they can access these services when and if needed. Preferably without being placed on a long waiting list. The World Health Organisation (2001) declares undoubtedly that there can be “no health without mental health”.

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