Mental health experts warn that the global Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown can have a negative impact on people’s mental health and well-being.
The measures put in place by President Cyril Ramaphosa, effective 26 March 2020, restrict people from leaving their homes (unless for essentials such as groceries, medical help, and petrol) and from gathering with others.
The 21-day lockdown may sound like a short period of time, but isolation can lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression, and feelings of fear, agitation, anger, loss, and loneliness, says clinical psychologist Dessy Tzoneva.
Dr Colinda Linde, a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg, said that the terminology alone strikes fear among individuals.
“There’s a good reason the term lockdown makes us feel so powerless and trapped; it’s a term commonly used in prisons, where the inhabitants are in that position,” says Linde.
Linde explained that “no one wants to feel they have no choice, and all of these factors contribute to a general level of discomfort and unhappiness in a situation like this”.
“Economically most people have taken a serious knock; many cannot work online and are sitting waiting for the possibility to work (and earn) as soon as this period ends. Sitting with the worry about how you are going to survive, even if it’s just you or one family versus being an employer of many, is also taking a toll and raising levels of anxiety and depression.”
Casey Chambers, the operations director for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) says the group has seen an increase in the number of calls since the start of the lockdown.
“We are getting more calls from people who are feeling more anxious, more down, and even saddened as they are seeing the [number] of cases and deaths increasing every day,” says Chambers.
Sadag is also concerned about people who live alone. “We have also been receiving calls from people who are doing lockdown by themselves and who do not have family or friends,” says Chambers.
Moreover, Sadag has seen an increase in calls from people who live in an abusive household who are stressed and worried about their safety. Chambers says that the group is trying to help such people with safety plans.
Sadag predicts that these cases will increase over time as we get deeper into lockdown and see an increase in the number of people infected.
“We are anticipating an increase in the number of calls and we are trying to build capacity as we deal with the influx,” adds Chambers.
A primary concern for Sadag is access to mental health services. These services are now being reduced because of the lockdown and the Covid-19 guidelines that hospitals are required to follow. According to Chambers, these restrictions do not help an already under-resourced area.
Dr Gloria Marsay, a Sandton educational psychologist, says that it is not just those who struggle with mental health disorders who will feel the impact of Covid-19 and the isolation.
Those who live alone will find it especially difficult to cope during this time and differences in sociability play a role in how people will cope with the current situation.
Linde points out that “introverts will find it easier than extroverts, and people with a strong spiritual life seem to be able to rely on this as a daily and comforting practice”.
Although living alone is not easy, people need to make a conscious effort to reach out and use their social networks and support systems.
Unfortunately, however, the poor and the elderly are more at risk as there is a lack of public resources in South Africa. Mental Health Professionals are hoping that this pandemic will change that.
Marsay explains that “provision for dealing with mental health in South Africa has been seriously under-resourced in the past”.
“Hopefully this pandemic will alert policymakers to the need for improved skills and strategies to be taught in schools and to be disseminated during this lockdown period in as many practical ways as possible. Social and Emotional Skills are paramount for sustained mental health.”
What you can do to cope
It is important to reach out to friends and family telephonically and online where possible.
“While online contact can’t really replace the human touch, it is still a powerful means of remembering you are not alone,” says Linde.
“It is important to create and maintain a routine,” says Marsay.
The structure of routine gives a sense of safety and support. Marsay suggests trying the following to manage your stress levels and to avoid being stuck in a rut:
- Get up and get dressed at a designated time;
- Get some sunshine (this can be done by standing at a window or going into your garden);
- Eat enough and as healthily as possible;
- Get enough sleep and stick to a regular bedtime; and
- Get enough exercise (you download one of the many apps available to exercise in your own home).
Humans, by nature, are resilient. “We have a basic instinct to survive. It is our duty as people living within communities to help each other in whatever way we can,” says Marsay.
Lockdown does not have to mean solitary confinement. Reach out to friends and family, and above all, stay safe.
Psychiatrists and psychologists are offering telephonic or virtual consultations. Your healthcare provider will be able to recommend someone for you to talk to.
Alternatively, if you are having difficulties with mental health, contact Sadag on 0800 456 789.
Sadag offers free telephonic and virtual consultations with expert psychologists. MC