COVID-19: Setting an agenda for mental health research

People around the globe are experiencing fear and uncertainty in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic which is likely to cause a tidal wave of mental health problems. The increased social isolation and loneliness associated with the pandemic increase the risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. Mental health disorders and the need for psychosocial support may be amplified by COVID-19.

Our daily lives have been disrupted. Existing problems affecting humankind such as poverty, inequality and limited access to healthcare services have been compounded by COVID-19. In addition, the world has been confronted with collapsing economies, unemployment, disrupted schooling and higher education, working from home and strained healthcare systems during this pandemic. Lockdowns were initiated around the world with the purpose of disrupting the chain of transmission of this disease to dramatically combat the medical crisis it created. It has been suggested that these lockdowns added to psychological distress; the world has witnessed that prolonged confinement to home has resulted in domestic conflict, domestic violence and homicide for some.

The South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) reported  that mental health patients were more likely to relapse on treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. SASOP also warned new psychiatric cases will rise in South Africa due to the stress of the pandemic. The COVID-19 positive status is also associated with cultural shame and ostracism around the globe. The consequences of stigma related to this disease include depression and suicide.

There are various population groups that are especially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. These include children, adolescents, families, pregnant women, elderly people, people with existing mental health problems, frontline healthcare workers, people with learning disorders, socially excluded groups (prisoners, refugees, homeless) and survivors of severe COVID-19 . During this pandemic, many children and adolescents have been exposed to domestic violence which has serious consequences for their mental health. COVID-19 is also impacting perinatal mental health as many pregnant women are birthing alone with no family support. The pandemic has also resulted in fear, re-organisations of families, stress and death of family members which pose risks for mental illness. Depression, anxiety and stress are common among healthcare workers facing the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no literature available to date on the impact of COVID-19 or the reduction of psychiatric emergency consultations on the mental health of South Africans. Research is warranted to provide high quality data on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health of our population . The data will allow researchers, policy makers and mental health practitioners to develop appropriate interventions to improve mental health and well-being and plan for the mental health sequelae in the aftermath of the pandemic..

Article by Dr Desiree Govender

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