DURBAN – “There will be no return to normal once the lockdown ends. Our lives when we go back after this lockdown are simply not going to be the same. Our lives have changed since 5 March when we saw that first case,” said internationally-recognised epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist, Professor Salim Abdool Karim.
While this remark from Professor Abdool Karim, was not to alarm people. Its purpose was to create awareness in the hopes of encouraging preparedness now for the 2.6 billion people around the world who are in some kind of lockdown that will have to be lifted in the coming weeks/months.
In late February 2020, right before European countries mandated various forms of lockdowns, The Lancet published a review of 24 studies documenting the psychological impact of quarantine. The findings offer a glimpse of what is brewing in hundreds of millions of households around the world.
People who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms of psychological stress and disorder including: low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Low mood and irritability specifically stand out as being very common, the study notes.
“These expected mental health effects are already being reported in China about the lockdown. In cases where parents were quarantined with children, the mental health toll became even steeper. Studies also show that no less than 28% of quarantined parents warranted a diagnosis of “trauma-related mental health disorder,” ”says Dr Elke Van Hoof, a psychology professor from Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Among quarantined hospital staff, almost 10% reported “high depressive symptoms” up to three years after being quarantined. While another study reporting on the long-term effects of SARS quarantine among healthcare workers found a long-term risk for alcohol abuse, self-medication and long-lasting “avoidance” behaviour. This means that years after being quarantined, some hospital workers still avoid being in close contact with patients by simply not showing up for work.
“We will see a second wave of this in three to six months. Just when we need all able bodies to repair the economy, we can expect a sharp spike in absenteeism and burnout. In general, we know at-risk groups for long-term mental health issues will be the healthcare workers who are on the frontline, young people under 30 and children,” adds Van Hoof.
While the insights are not new, Van Hoof says to mitigate the toxic effects of this lockdown governments need to act now. The professor suggests the following:
- Make sure self-help interventions are in place that can address the needs of large affected populations;
- Educate people about the expected psychological impact and reactions to trauma if they are interested in receiving it. Make sure people understand that a psychological reaction is normal;
- Launch a specific website to address psychosocial issues;
- Make sure that people with acute issues can find the help that they need
In conclusion Van Hoof says: “When it comes to offering psychological support to their populations, most countries are late to react, as they were to the novel coronavirus. Better late than never.”
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