COVID-19: Psychological distress and depression

Ayesha Tahir

The COVID-19 disease that emerged at the end of 2019 has now achieved a pandemic status and threatened the health and lives of billions of people around the world within a few months. The novel coronavirus is highly contagious and governments and public health authorities have enforced extraordinary measures to prevent the contagion and limit the outbreak. Deadly nature of the disease and complex preventive measures have inflicted psychological distress and frustration at a scale which human race had never suffered in past.

More alarming is the fact that this effect is not limited to confirmed patients or people with suspected infection but also to quarantined family members, and health care workers. More over this psychological distress is not limited to poor or under developed populations but has a global impact. In a recent survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of Americans felt that the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health and 19% felt it had a “major impact”. Experience with such outbreak of infections in past which focused on quarantining and social isolation of people either exposed to or even at risk of exposure found that a substantial portion of those quarantined displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Urgent and robust psychological measures are therefore required which aim at reducing the risk of developing distress, improving well-being, as well as promoting preventive behaviors. Our traditional media and social media feeds are filled with urgent and often conflicting imperatives to change our routines The online onslaught of rapidly updating media stories reporting worst-case scenarios have not only fueled the fear and panic but also eroded our most precious and essential human resources for weathering the COVID-19 storm: our mental health.

Even before the virus outbreak, depression and anxiety have been noted as defining features of our times. Isolation and uncertainty are not going to help us deal with the new realities of our newly virtual lives – virtual work, virtual schools and virtual family care – under the incredible stress of unfamiliar circumstances. We need an urgent focus on measures to boost our mental health in COVID-19 era to minimize the impact of the virus and the “social distancing” in our lives, and to develop a healthier and more resilient “new normal” for the future. We need to pay serious attention to the link between stress regulation and our health and well-being.

We should not just talk about protection from COVID-19, but also focus on prevention of stress and fear during this event. We need to shift narratives away from number of deaths toward number of recoveries. In fact, a sense of hope instead of fear could allow leaders and everyday citizens to better cooperate with one another – a vital element to overcome this outbreak.

Getting to the facts by gathering high-quality information that will help us to accurately determine our own or other people’s risk of contracting coronavirus (COVID-19) so that we can take reasonable precautions and responsible actions. Depression is a common mental health problem that causes people to experience low mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration.

If not treated in time, it can lead to a variety of emotional or physical problems and can seriously impair one’s ability to function at work and at home. It is a leading cause of disability and loss of productivity across the world including Pakistan. Depression is a complex condition and its causes are not fully understood. Many decades of research, however, have identified multiple factors contributing or leading to depression. These include biological factors (for example, genetic predisposition) social environment (adverse experiences dating back to childhood, unemployment, bereavement) or life-changing events such as pregnancy and as in the current situation is the COVID-19 disease. Having a long-standing or life-threatening illness, such as heart disease, or cancer, have also been associated with an increased risk of depression.

It is unfortunate that people in our country consider people affected with psychiatric disorders as abnormal . They do not realize that consulting a psychologist or psychiatrist is very much normal like other people seeking medical advice for treatment of diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma. All people having a depressive disorder can cope with the disease and become useful citizens with regular care.

What is the need of hour is to raise awareness about depression among masses and make them realize that care of people suffering from this complex and crippling disorder is essential. We should tell people that investment in mental health makes financial and social sense, and failure to act is more costly. Its effective treatment is available through psychological interventions( cognitive behavioral therapy & counselling) and anti-depressant medications, or a combination of both. . In developed countries people are not ashamed of discussing their problems with psychiatrists because they take it normal. That is why the level of anxiety and depression is less among them as compared to us as most people consult therapists. If we do not change this trend then we will not be able to prosper as successful society.

In this regard, the government should also step forward to improve mental health services. It can involve NGO’s to create awareness among people about the symptoms of depression and its treatment. Due to lack of awareness people don’t know what exactly depression is, even when they know, they don’t accept because of fear of being rejected by the society. Currently, mental health is the most neglected field in Pakistan.

When people with depression go untreated, they often find other means of coping with their problems, which eventually lead them to addiction or suicidal thoughts. We should understand that people suffering from mental conditions are normal people just like others. Their only problem is that they failed to cope with their issues due to which they suffer and need help of a professional. Such people need our help and support in order to live healthy and normal life.

People afflicted with psychosocial distress especially depression need to socialize and stay in touch with the society. They do not need to withdraw from life. Socializing can improve their mood. Keeping in touch with friends and family means they have someone to talk to when they feel low. They need to be more active and take some exercise. There is evidence that simple exercise like gentle walk for 20 minutes can help lift ones mood. They should not avoid the things they find difficult. When people feel low or anxious, they sometimes avoid talking to other people. Some people can lose their confidence in going out, driving or travelling. If this starts to happen, facing up to these situations will help them become easier.

Some people do not feel like eating when they are depressed and are at risk of becoming underweight. Others find comfort in food and can put on excess weight. Focus on healthy diet, therefore, can have enormous impact on ones wellbeing. When people feel down, they often get into poor sleep patterns, staying up late and sleeping during the day. They need to get up at their normal time and stick to their routine as much as possible. People need to seek help for depression if they feel down or depressed after a couple of weeks of effort with above measures. Treatments for depression include psychological therapies (like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / Counselling ) and Antidepressant medicines.

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