Ben Brown’s thoughts…COVID-19 and our Mental Health – are we prepared?

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The COVID-19 pandemic which has hit many parts of the world, and our beloved country, has left many people devastated. Businesses are collapsing, workers are being laid off, people are being quarantined and the death toll keeps rising. We are all experiencing a kind of trauma – whether for the death of loved ones, the loss of our way of life, or the knowledge that things will never be the same again. The loss of control over major aspects of our lives and lack of a clear end to the crisis are both partly to blame. Hence my question, ‘are we psychologically prepared for it’?

The Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication’s Psychology of a Crisis, during pandemics people may experience a wide range of emotions which can interfere with cooperation and response from the public. The World Health Organisation reports that the most prevalent emotion is elevated rates of stress or anxiety. Other impacts COVID-19 is having on people are heightened levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug abuse, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour. For some, stress will develop into a diagnosable mental health problem.

Health-care workers who treat COVID-19 issues are likely at increased risk of such issues. The stress they are under now could take months to process so we won’t know the full psychological impact of this pandemic for a long time. During the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003, 89% of 271 health-care workers in Hong Kong reported negative psychological effects, including exhaustion and fear of social contact. And for up to 2 years after the epidemic ended, health-care workers in Toronto, another city hit hard by SARS, had significantly higher than normal levels of burnout, psychological stress, and post-traumatic stress.

And yes, there’s another group we must worry about: the people who have been admitted to intensive care or quarantined with Covid-19 and survived. Among others, the stigmatization they will be going through may even be worse than the virus itself simply because Ghanaians believe in the Akan adage which roughly translated means ‘a cured lunatic still has a little insanity he can use to scare children’.

The way forward

In Ghana, the organization in charge of mental health is the Mental Health Authority. Speaking to the Head of Communications of the Mental Health Authority, Kwaku Brobbey, he revealed that Ghana is prepared for this issue and that measures have been put in place to help people who need psychological support, especially in this Covid-19 pandemic. He added however that everyone may unfortunately not be aware of the support out there for them.

‘It’s up to the education we are giving the frontline workers so that if you are in any situation and you feel like you are not on top of situations, you feel stressed and all, there are the right people to talk to. Approach them, talk to them and get the psychological support you need so that you’ll be able to get over the situation’, he advised.

He also indicated that the stigma people may receive is not towards the disease but towards people who have suffered the disease. People tend to shy aware from persons who have suffered the disease instead of lending our support. Stigmatization will be defeated when the public overcomes the fear of the condition.

In order to address COVID-19 stigmatization the Mental Health Authority issued a press release on April 23, 2020 in which they urged the public to stop public stigma and ‘people affected should also watch against self-stigma, increase your resilience to ignore the public stigma and tell yourself that you have been blessed to have survived and no amount of stigma from the public can discourage you from enjoying your health and freedom from the virus’.

A question a good friend, Dennis, always asks when mental health assistance is brought up is, ‘when should you seek psychological help’? Just like Dennis, most people do not know exactly when stress and other conditions may need psychological assistance. Mr Brobbey intimated that every person must check their mental health status at least twice every year.

People who experience recurring and prolonged stress that ‘disrupts your way of life and you realize that you’re not sleeping well, not eating well, not relating well to people and not being productive at work or other things that you do, then at that point you need to seek professional help’. This help is free and available at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, Pantang Psychiatric Hospital, Ankaful Psychiatric Hospital, and all district and regional hospitals.

The Mental Health Authority, along with its associate partners, have also put out a number of telephone lines that people who need psychological support can contact for free assistance.

Let’s all come together to support each other and direct persons, especially health-care workers and Covid-19 survivors, who exhibit negative psychological conditions like burnout, psychological stress, exhaustion, fear of social contact and post-traumatic stress to certified clinical psychologists and hospitals for assistance. Always know that there’s hope even if your brain tells you there isn’t.

 The writer is a third-year student of the Ghana Institute of Journalism

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