CORONAVIRUS

How lockdown takes a toll on mental health

By Chanel Retief 8 May 2020

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

While many are worried about the impact of Covid-19 on the economy, experts have emphasised that the pandemic could have an even more severe effect on the mental health of South African businesses, their leaders, managers and employees.

Calls to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) have doubled since the start of national lockdown 42 days ago.

“Before lockdown, we were receiving 600 calls per day. And now (during April) we are getting 1,200 to 1,400+ each day. That is just incoming calls – this excludes the follow-up calls and the outgoing calls we get to do to help in crisis interventions
,” said Cassey Chambers, Operations Director at the South African Depression And Anxiety Group (SADAG).

Chambers pointed out that most of the calls during this time stemmed from people who experience depression, anxiety and panic, family conflict and violence such as domestic violence, problems accessing government support, and suicidal feelings. 

Chambers made the comments alongside other mental health experts during a webinar hosted by Business For SA to discuss the effects of Covid-19 on mental health in businesses and challenges it poses to people in the sector on Thursday 7 May 2020. 

Part of the discussion saw experts highlighting how mental health can affect anyone in the business sector (managers, business owners, workers). The discussion also looked at how this can affect families and how they are experiencing a disproportionate amount of stress and anxiety from a combination of financial, business and job security concerns together with the toll of the actual or perceived risk of infection.  

SADAG recently conducted a survey among South Africans which found that during the lockdown, 55% have feelings of anxiety and panic, and 46% are under financial stress and pressure. 

“These aspects of social life are interrelated in some way or another,” said  Professor Garth Stevens, President of the Psychological Society of South Africa. “So health alongside economics alongside psychosocial dimensions of pandemics need to be considered… however, what needs to be remembered is that mental health is not experienced in the same way by all people.”

“One of the calls we got was from people saying that they had a job a month ago and  are now standing in queues getting food parcels,” Chambers said, “This will have a huge effect on someone’s mental health.”

Dr Colinda Linde, clinical psychologist and SADAG board member, said cases she had dealt with during lockdown had all been different but had shown how in some way most South Africans have been impacted. 

Linde describes a case where a manager had to retrench 50% of her team when Covid-19 hit and this increased the manager’s stress and anxiety levels as she had to deliver this bad news. Or the case where another manager heard over a video call meeting their colleague say “they are just done” and was not sure how to handle the situation. 

Linde also spoke to a domestic worker who is stuck at home and can’t leave but has limited funds and is unsure of how she will receive a salary or UIF but has to look after her family. 

Adding to that, the domestic worker is also at home with her husband who is abusive. 

“Maybe you know these people or maybe you are these people but these are the people all around us. Whether you are the big boss that needs to do the dirty under pressure job because you have to make the company survive and you are thinking what do I do with my people who have become like family,” Dr Linde said. “Or you are the person who is thinking I have no power here and I just hope that somebody is still going to give me money somehow … we are all in this thing together.” 

During this time of lockdown, Stevens said it was fair to estimate that women would be disproportionately burdened with the care of children, with the care of old and the frail as well as the issue of homeschooling and other domestic activities, and in many cases they will still be expected to continue to perform “in the workplace” as usual. 

“In those sectors where women are particularly present in the workplace one needs to think proactively about (their mental health) over the long term,” Stevens said. 

Stevens also said that with the ban on cigarettes and alcohol, there is a chance that substance abuse could likely increase. 

Linde has also emphasised that when looking at businesses and the impact that mental health has had on businesses, journalists need to take extra care. 

“There is this non-stop trauma that journalists are exposed to first hand and this is leading to secondary trauma and then it becomes compassion fatigue.” Dr Linde added: “With compassion fatigue, there is exhaustion and then there’s a cynical attitude that comes and then just a numbness. You then end up questioning am I doing the right thing, these are factors in compassion fatigue.” 

All experts insisted that businesses (both employees and employers) take their mental health into consideration when thinking about the stress that will or has already arisen during the lockdown period. 

“This is the perfect time where business needs to look at making mental health a priority in the workplace. We can’t control the guidelines, we can’t control the restrictions and we can’t control what is happening to the economy, but we can control how we look after our employees and our staff and ourselves,” Chambers said.

The most critical element in doing so is not suppressing feelings like anger and frustration which, according to Linde, can “spill sideways” and lead to domestic violence, self-harm or being aggressive with inanimate objects. 

“We need to work on the mind. When anger and frustration are suppressed because we can’t blame anyone really, there is a lot of research that shows this can lead to cardiac arrest…it’s like nuclear energy; you either implode, explode or channel it in the right direction,” Linde said. DM

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