The Looming Threat: the Mental Health Wave

As we move into the summer, worldwide governments seem to have managed to get the Coronavirus outbreak under control. However, with the global vaccination programme well on its way and the dwindling of positive cases, other issues are becoming more evident. COVID-19 did not only cause millions of casualties and a halt to the global economy, but it also deeply affected the population’s mental health.

With the end of the disease, a part of society will resume their daily life and will be able to shake off the state of anxiety and depression that characterised the last year. However, numerous experts have warned that for others this will not be possible because repeated lockdowns and social distancing measures have triggered or intensified mental health conditions. Disorders such as depression, anxiety, sleeping difficulty, substance use and suicidal thoughts experienced a sharp increase since March 2020. Furthermore, many specialised organizations and psychologists have cautioned that these problems may last in the long term. Indeed, in the British Medical Journal, English experts have commented that "the mental health impact of the pandemic is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact".

Even though it is still too early to fully appreciate the crisis' impact on citizens' subconscious stability, researchers worldwide are already trying to pinpoint its impact on the human psyche. Studying these effects will not only help understand the current situation but will also give nations a strategy to face future pandemics and contain unwanted side effects.

One research that is attempting to understand people's experiences during the epidemic is Dr Daisy Fancourt's and Alex Bradbury's COVID-19 Social Study. Since March 2020, the two UCL researchers have tracked through regular surveys the conditions of 70.000 people in the United Kingdom to understand what difficulties they were facing. The results found illustrated that "individuals’ mental health is affected not only by experiencing adversities such as financial strain, unemployment, and infection with the virus, but also by worrying about these consequences". Similarly, an American analysis presented by the US Census Bureau in December 2020 explained that more than 42% of the questionnaire respondents exhibited feelings of anxiety and depression, a boost of 11% compared to 2019. With unemployment and financial uncertainty on the rise, experts fear that this trend is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, the Centre for Mental Health has forecasted that in the United Kingdom "up to 10 million people (almost 20% of the population) will need either new or additional mental health support" because of COVID-19.

However, another element that was highlighted by these surveys is the differences in experiencing the crisis when looking at it from a gender, ethnicity and income perspectives. Thus far, data has shown that women's mental well-being is more vulnerable than men's. Due to the implementation of work at home policies, females (in particular mothers) have been burdened with increased family duties, economic uncertainty and feelings of isolation, leading to greater psychological difficulties.

Moreover, another key takeaway from the study has demonstrated that the belonging to one’s cultural group has played a significant part in how we lived through the pandemic. Indeed, according to the findings, "(N)on-Hispanic Black adults (48%) and Hispanic or Latino adults (46%) are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder than Non-Hispanic White adults (41%)". Indeed, even though the virus' outbreak sparked a feeling of universal solidarity among society, inequalities persisted, showing a higher percentage of COVID-19-related casualties for the Black, Asian and other minorities communities.

Lastly, the segments of society with lower economic resources have been hit more severely by the disease because of growing concerns about their earnings and basic necessities such as food or medicines, which ultimately put a strain on their psychological wellbeing. As a result, the British Centre for Mental Health has commented that "(L)ong term, there are significant risks that people living in deprived communities and people living in poverty will experience a disproportionate impact from rising debt, long-term unemployment, and a lack of financial security, all of which are associated with poorer mental health".

With helplines enduring a surge in calls, hitting during the peak of the pandemic up to twice the usual recorded number, charities and organizations are speaking up for governments to take action. Even the UN in their Policy Brief titled "COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health" has alerted that if worldwide leaders neglect these concerns, the pandemic "has the seeds of a major mental health crisis". Among the measures demanded by specialists, three key resolutions stand out: non-biased access to mental healthcare; widespread promotion of psychological support; and, improvement of future wellbeing services and structures. In light of recent events, the British government has taken a step to meet these solicitations and announced £500millions of extra spending to enhance the conditions of mentally ill patients and infrastructures across England.

While countries are still trying to recover from COVID-19's hard blow to their daily lives and economy, another concern is looming large on the horizon. The imperceptible nature of mental illnesses makes it hard to truly understand their breadth on society and adequately adopt proper measures. However, as warned by several specialists this virus is not just a health crisis. After more than a year, Coronavirus has developed into a "chronic stressor" that will not easily disappear with the decline in cases and increase in vaccinations. Its mental toll is set to last in the long run and to improve society's future living conditions, psychological wellbeing cannot be underestimated. The worsening of mental health services is also partially the result of the governments' lack of investments and funding in the last decades. Therefore, the infection's outbreak should be seen as a wake-up call to boost psychological assistance and break gender, racial, and financial inequalities.

Written by Cinzia Saro

Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.