The Inevitable Second Wave of Pandemic-Mental Health Issues

Published: May 28, 2020

by Sumedha Sachar Science and Policy Exchange

Every day begins with an act of courage and hope: getting out of bed — Mason Cooley

As nations try to contain the spread of the virus and flatten the curve, the social isolation and uncertainties surrounding the pandemic are contributing towards an inevitable second wave — ”Pandemic of Mental Issues”.

Perceived social isolation or loneliness has been linked to heart diseases, diabetes, anxiety, depression and is shown to significantly decrease cognitive performance among individuals. It has been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, thereby increasing the risk of early death by 26%. In these unprecedented times, the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic are bound to have lasting effects on the mental health of many and the next wave of mental health issues is sure to last long after the pandemic is over.

Mass-unemployment, bankruptcies, separation from families, pre-existing mental health issues, and the nuisance of working from home have all added to the increase in stress, anxiety, and depression among younger people and the elderly alike. According to a survey by Mental Health Research Canada, 20% of Canadians have reported high-level anxiety and self-reported cases of depression have increased from 7% to 16% amid social isolation. An increase in alcohol addiction, substance abuse, and domestic violence to name a few are just the other psychological consequences that have sparked a rise recently.

Flatten the mental health curve

While social distancing and quarantining are essential to flatten the curve, we must recognize that these measures create unforeseen and exorbitant implications for people living in vulnerable circumstances, that will intensify as the pandemic evolves.

On one hand, the elderly, the less tech-savvy, and the more vulnerable sections of our society are overwhelmed victims of COVID-19, on the other hand, jobless single parents and students have taken a big hit amid lockdown and some are left to go through the crisis on their own. The virus has emerged as an existential threat for many, with most of them unable to bear the possibility of feeling lonelier than they already do. For them, just being around other people and feeling part of a shared society can be a lifeline with vital psychological significance. The virus has certainly laid bare the weakness of many of our institutions and the unpreparedness of our healthcare systems.

Studies on past outbreaks (SARS and EBOLA) reveal a toll on healthcare workers reporting psychological effects including exhaustion, psychological distress, and post-traumatic stress, along with fear of social contact. According to a survey, 43% of the health-care workers reported an increase in anxiety since the beginning of pandemic as compared to 14% earlier. However, while the government has taken initiatives to protect our frontline heroes by creating accessible health lines, these are still far away from compensating for the overburdened healthcare system and emotional turmoil the virus has created. With the increase in a rush to get the economies back on track, discussions about immunity passports as a new privilege have further added to the existing chaos and is encouraging younger people trying to get infected to get back their jobs, cross borders, and avoid social distancing.

Building a virtual community with caution

The sudden psychological avalanche and mandatory social distancing measures to flatten the curve has made people adjust to isolation by finding new ways to bring their outside social lives into their homes. Living rooms are the new offices, gyms, bars, yoga centers, and coffee shops. Physical meetings have been moved to Skype and Zoom, and parties have turned into virtual happy hours. According to a report, web traffic has climbed 20%, virtual private networks jumped 30% and online gaming skyrocketed 75% since the beginning of the pandemic. Although digital media has turned out to be a blessing, in this time of crisis, excessive internet usage can increase fear, stress, and anxiety. As the pandemic is growing, conspiracy theories and misinformation are exploding digital news sites and social media. In lieu of staying informed, many people are falling prey to sensationalistic headlines and fear-provoking news from unreliable sources and social media platforms, creating additional fear, anxiety, and stress around future uncertainties. Although it’s becoming extremely difficult to disengage from the enormous COVID-19 news updates, it is important to carefully choose reliable news sources and make concentrated efforts to place our attention elsewhere.

As we all are trying to find solace in our virtual communities, the known unknowns of the Internet need our special attention. A significant rise in online child predators as kids are spending more time on the internet reminds us of one such nuance of internet usage. There is a need to educate and counsel kids about safe internet use and protect them from online sexual victimization and cyberbullying which can have emotional and psychological consequences on young minds. There has also been a rise in privacy and security concerns surrounding online platforms as we see with Zoombombing. Although Zoom, Mac, Windows, and others are trying to make the platforms more secure, there are still issues around cybersecurity and encryption policies that need to be addressed before we digitalize our social lives.

I can’t change the direction of the wind but I can adjust the sails to always reach my destination — Jimmy Dean

COVID-19 is transforming the societies that have lost so much. The endgame still seems far away and the eagerness to take back control of our lives again mounts. The silver lining beneath all this is a chance to spend time with family, explore, learn, reflect, rejuvenate, and reorganize ourselves. The past few weeks have made us realize the real value of social touch in our lives. Volunteers and neighbors have mobilized to ensure that people in their communities, who are socially isolated or vulnerable, are receiving food and supplies. People are finding creative ways of supporting each other, like singing from balconies and sending letters of hope and love to the less tech-savvy elderly in long-term care. The hope of these newly-formed social resources to continually enrich our communities and help people cope better with the stress of the outbreak, even after it is over, is the new ray of sunshine.

Physical distancing or social distancing

Social distancing is a misnomer and is wrongly interpreted as social isolation. It is absolutely essential to stop the spread of the virus by respecting physical distancing rather than social isolation, to preserve our mental and emotional wellbeing. What we might currently need is to follow guidelines from public health agencies — to cover our face, wash our hands, and keep safe physical distances — while staying close socially and emotionally. As economies start to reopen around the globe, we all need to adapt to an abrupt new reality and unprecedented challenges on a personal, professional, and global scale. Emerging from this health crisis together might bring us a new perspective as to how important accessible and high-quality mental health support is.