Just when mankind was considering itself invincible, riding on the waves of techno-economic advancements, an antagonist sized a few nanometers forced us to kneel. The virus did not just challenge humanity’s physical health, rather by sending sectors, geographies and economies grappling to find a breakthrough, it wages a war over the most atomic conduit that runs it all – the human mind!
Deterioration of mental health is the elephant in the room which is being majorly misread, its parts being taken for the whole given our myopic vision and knowledge on the subject. A Google Trends analysis found a major jump in searches related to anxiety, panic attacks, and treatments for panic attacks, especially remote and self-care techniques, in the weeks following the pandemic declaration. But, experts call it just the tip of the ice-berg, warning about a “mental health tsunami” that is to follow because of unanticipated death, burnout, lockdown, changing social norms and unemployment. As per data, for each person that dies of COVID, approximately nine close family members are affected, and people will carry that grief for a long time. This means we can expect more depression, PTSD, community violence, suicide, and complex bereavement in the times to follow. But is the world prepared for this shadow pandemic that looms over all of humanity?
The Great Divide
Since the wealthiest economies owing to their interconnectedness in terms of global trade and tourism were the first ones to contract the disease, the rules of reducing person-to-person viral transmission via respiratory excretions were dictated by them. Norms such as social distancing, work from home, quarantining, school closings – feasible in such economies were implemented amidst immense difficulties by the developing ones. With chronic shortages even in basic necessities, the added pressure of coronavirus blew away the livelihoods of a significant chunk of their populations and depleted their already meagre resources. While major economies like US are facing a surge in mental agonies resulting from COVID 19, for the struggling economies it is just one of the several pain points. For example, upon some data mining it was revealed that the “treatment gap” between those who seek mental care and those who provide it is estimated to reach between 76–85% for low- and middle-income countries, and 35–50% for high-income countries. This calls for urgent global attention since in a connected world the butterfly effect of anxiety anywhere is a threat to harmony everywhere. We can draw parallels to this from the Syrian crisis, where a drought struck youth who lost everything to water shortage became ripe breeding grounds for ISIS. In a world where the widespread impact of Corona is plummeting economies as a whole, early global and policy intervention to handhold and guide anxious unemployed youths is hence of paramount importance.
Immigrants & Low Income Groups
Globally, nations were overly turning inwards even before COVID wreaked further havoc. With Corona, the situation only worsened with economies becoming further hostile in hosting their migrant workforce charging them of crimes such as draining them of their wealth and for becoming COVID hotspots. Stats reveal that over 300,000 unskilled migrant workers in Singapore who live in packed dormitories account for more than 90% of all the COVID-19 cases in Singapore. With businesses shutting shops in these metropolitans, the migrants headed home to an uncertain future inducing in them and their family severe anxiety and financial trauma. The ones who survive, face collective panic of job loss, homelessness and repatriation. Add to it the poor income groups who also amount to almost 1 billion people, or 32 percent of the world’s urban population, live in “informal settlements” under crowded and unhygienic conditions. While COVID would have left them exposed to infections, the mental trauma arising out of fear, condemnation and helplessness will be a major cause of concern in the times to come.
The Young & Vulnerable
There are more than 2.2 billion children in the world who constitute approximately 28% of the world’s population. Given the pandemic induced social distancing and anxiety, the upcoming generation is exposed to extreme mental stress depending on factors like developmental age, having special needs, pre-existing mental health condition, being economically under privileged and them/parent being quarantined due to infection or fear of infection. Also, 1 in every 6 children within the age group of 2-8 years have some or the other neurodevelopmental, behavioral or emotional difficulty such as autism, ADHD, development delays etc. Such kids have intense intolerance for uncertainty and there is an aggravation in the symptoms due to the enforced restrictions and unfriendly environment. The prolonged period of stress could have a long term negative impact on the development of underprivileged kids as well. For instance, in India, which has the largest child population in the world with 472 million children, the lockdown has significantly impacted 40 million children from poor families. Having no source of income due to economic downturn, they constitute a high risk population vulnerable to face abuse and mental health issues creating an entire generation of mentally stressed citizens and human resources.
The Way Ahead
The World Health Organization has noted that depression and anxiety have an estimated cost to the global economy of $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. While this doesn’t take into account the entire spectrum of mental health induced losses and is bound to shoot up in a post COVID world, we need to act quick in order to build resilience and to proactively reach out to the ones in danger. A few steps in the direction can be:
- Strengthening Community Outreach Programs – We live in a world where virtual interactions and social media communities have gained prominence and hence, in the wake of an emergency humans find themselves isolated and unable to seek help. This loss of sense of belonging to and being taken care of by a real physical community is one of the root causes of an escalation in mental health related issues. Therefore, governments and local bodies at micro levels, need to conduct outreach programs to promote resilience, normalize reactions, and let people know when and where to seek help. Further, through these outreach programs volunteers from various strata and roles of the society can be trained and deployed as frontline mental healthcare providers, so as to fill the ever increasing demand of mental health practitioners.
- Predictive Analysis For Proactive Help – Theodore Roosevelt had said, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” It is not the first time that humanity is facing a big crisis. This time, aided by technology – our most powerful ally, we can mitigate the mental health impact by COVID by examining the behavioral health impact of the Great Recession and other large-scale disasters and scaling their inferences onto the current crisis. Predictive analysis can be employed to direct prevention and clinical resources to those most at-risk for mental health related help. Given the proliferation of mobile phones, by integrating AI and scaling digital therapeutics, more and more people can be brought under the gambit of receiving reliable mental health support at affordable costs right when they need them.
- Removing Stigma While Raising Awareness – The need to accelerate and to normalize seeking of mental health care is on an all-time high. Families, parents, teachers, employers, policymakers, healthcare practitioners, etc. all need to be made cognizant of the benefits of therapy and the importance of availing it at the onset of a distress, just like they are aware of catering to the need of physical emergencies.
- Mental Health Treatment Pool – This is a global crisis – one that has a domino effect on everyone. And precisely for this reason, there must be pooling of financial resources, latest tech and knowledge among the global community to build resilient models at local grassroots. Funding from major corporates, developed economies, celebrities etc. will ensure that care and resilience is built into the system in a way that there is no disparity in terms of accessing help at all levels of the society. Priority of this pool should be identification of research gaps, integrating mental health with traditional medicines such as yoga, meditation etc. and creating global networks with psychiatrists, mental heal professionals and alternative healers for evolving and scaling up of best practices based on research and data.
In the turmoil around the economy and the coronavirus itself, humanity should be mindful about the long lasting impact of the trauma that the pandemic will leave on us. This awareness coupled with implementation of solutions pointed through the article will help us in evolving our mental health care infrastructure while being empathetic to the needs of the lesser privileged around us. Human empathy and resilience has forever been invincible, and to win and thrive post the COVID 19 menace, we need to come together as a global community to address the hideous imprints it will leave behind on our collective mental health. Together, we can!