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Mental health fallout from pandemic must be addressed

he Covid-19 pandemic has ramifications for all aspects of society and our daily lives. As lockdown becomes our ‘new normal’, increasing attention is being paid to what impact the pandemic is having on our mental health.

In a recent statement, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO)  Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the psychological pressures now facing people all over the world are significant on a number of fronts. They include social isolation, fear of contagion, and loss of family members. These pressures can be compounded by the distress caused by loss of income and often employment due to the economic devastation caused by the pandemic.

Reports already indicate an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety in a number of countries. A recent study in Ethiopia reported a three-fold increase in the prevalence of symptoms of depression compared to estimates from Ethiopia before the pandemic. According to the WHO, specific groups are at particular risk of Covid-19-related psychological distress. This, of course, includes frontline healthcare workers.

During the pandemic, in China, healthcare workers have reported high rates of depression (50 per cent), anxiety (45 per cent), and insomnia (34 per cent) and in Canada, 47 per cent of healthcare workers have reported a need for psychological support.

In Ireland, the increase in physician burnout was already a topic of widespread discussion before the pandemic. The arrival of Covid-19 to these shores generated a hugely positive response from the medical profession, and other healthcare workers. Tensions — such as those regarding testing, personal protective equipment and the role of private hospitals — in recent weeks have seen a fracturing of the initial unity. This was always going to happen given the scale of crisis, but it is also indicative of the stress many physicians are under.

Overall, the response to the pandemic has put huge strain on a stretched system, which will have to recalibrate to cope with the new reality brought by the virus, as doctors begin seeing patients on waiting lists whose care was put on hold during the past number of weeks. Resources such as the RCPI’s Health and Wellbeing Department will be important in providing physicians with the psychological supports they require to cope with these immense challenges.

In terms of the general population, social distancing can easily turn into social isolation for a number of people. A feature in this issue of the Medical Independent looks at loneliness, which is a particular risk for older people, who have been encouraged to cocoon. However, older people are not the only group vulnerable to loneliness, as the lockdown has affected society as a whole in a way that is unprecedented in modern times. It is only natural that many will struggle to cope. Governments now must do their part to limit the psychological fallout from the pandemic and lockdown restrictions in so far as possible.

“It is now crystal clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to the WHO Director General.

“This is a collective responsibility of governments and civil society, with the support of the whole United Nations system. A failure to take people’s emotional wellbeing seriously will lead to long-term social and economic costs to society.”

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