COVID-19 will have a long-tail effect on mental health, experts predict
SINGAPORE — The prolonged Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have a long-tail effect on mental health, as stress levels rise with the uncertainty of the outbreak as well as the economic downturn it brings, experts have warned.
Dr Cornelia Chee, the head of the department of psychological medicine at the National University of Singapore and the National University Hospital, said that when it comes to Singapore’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the “honeymoon” phase is long over.
The period shortly after Singapore reported its first coronavirus case in January was characterized by community bonding and optimism that things will soon return to normal. That lasted for about two months or so.
Singapore is now in the disillusionment phase, and more cases of anxiety and depression can be expected in the coming months, Dr Chee said.
“We certainly entered it in March as the dorm workers’ cases increased and it was becoming more obvious that our overall economic recovery was dependent not only on our ability to contain our imported and locally-transmitted cases, but how well other countries managed their outbreaks and responses too,” she said.
Singapore has now had nearly 56,000 cases of Covid-19, and 27 deaths from Covid-19 complications and 15 who tested positive but died of other causes.
Dr Chee said Singapore’s recovery phase – which comes right after the disillusionment phase – will get under way here when there is pandemic control and economic recovery.
At the moment, this phase seems to hinge on the availability of a safe, effective and well-distributed vaccine, she said.
These phases were originally described in a manual for mental health and human service workers during times of a disaster, by the Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration in the United States.
“Without a clear indication of when the situation will improve, the prolonged exposure to these stressors and the impact of the pandemic may take a toll on one’s mental health,” said the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) chief executive Gasper Tan.
These may then lead to pronounced feelings of worthlessness and helplessness, he said.
SOS started a text messaging-based service in July, some three months ahead of its planned launch, to help address some of the mental health needs in the community.
Data on increased mental health cases due to the pandemic may not be available yet, but calls to help hotlines have risen.
During the circuit breaker period, calls to the SOS hotline rose from 3,826 in March to 4,319 in April and 4,265 in May. The April and May figures are about 30 to 35 per cent higher than a year ago.
June saw fewer calls logged – 3,831 – but this is still higher than the 2,863 calls in the same month a year ago.
The National Care hotline, which was launched in April to provide emotional and psychological support to those facing difficulties during the pandemic, has already received 26,000 calls.
A spokesman from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), which operates the hotline that is manned by trained volunteers, said the majority of the callers are aged above 21, and their top concerns include “mental health, marital and family issues, emotional support needed and financial or employment worries”.
Dr Goh Kah Hong, head and senior consultant of psychological medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, said his department is seeing higher demand for its services.
“The need stems partly from the backlog of circuit breaker measures, but there is a real increase in the number of people seeking help,” he said.
“This can perhaps be explained by the usual under-reporting of mental health issues. People are seeking help now because what they would have usually put up with has become too overwhelming to just bottle up.”
Dr Goh said he expects the pandemic to have a “long tail” because of the ramifications of prolonged stress and social isolation.
“With so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it is hard to predict how long people will continue to struggle when it wraps up,” he said.
“In terms of coping with the rise in demand, we are relying on good old team work and coordination, not just within our hospital but with our community partners,” said Dr Goh.
MSF chief psychologist Vivienne Ng said that apart from some people who may experience psychological distress, there are also vulnerable groups such as those with disability, people with mental health needs, and the elderly, who may be isolated at home and require additional emotional support and access to specialized services.
“Individuals with financial problems and/or who are experiencing unemployment, as well as those with caring responsibilities for young children, elderly, or individuals with special needs may also feel additional stress during this period.”
She advises people to talk to friends or family if they feel distressed.
“If you find yourself not able to function daily – having a poor appetite, or being unable to sleep properly, concentrate, low mood, for instance – please seek help early from a mental health practitioner,” she said.
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