Mental health in the COVID-19 crisis


Mental health in the COVID-19 crisis


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

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Last Saturday the world observed World Mental Health Day, when it focused on the quality of mental health in the world's population. This reflection has come at a prescient time in the history of the world when a pandemic of the likes the world has not experienced for 100 years poses an existential threat to life as we know it here. It was important, too, considering the extent, yet unknown, to which this pandemic will severely affect the mental health of people all over the world.

The truth is that no one will be spared. Individual countries can only seek to manage the emerging crisis with all the integrity of leadership, openness, and accountability that the hour demands. In Jamaica, the Health and Wellness Minister Christopher Tufton has wisely called attention to the issue of mental wellness in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. This concern applies to the general populace, but specifically for health workers on the front line of the fight against the virus. Some of these workers have been showing instances of severe burnout, and this can only become worse as the number of viral infections continue to rise.

There are many things that the novel coronavirus has laid bare. Apart from the test of good leadership at every level, it has shown up the inadequacies in health systems around the world and how unprepared many were in dealing with a pandemic. Even in developed economies, these inadequacies have become apparent. It is in this context that the growing psychosocial problems affecting vast populations must be assessed.

Mental health wellness in the context of a raging pandemic is a multifaceted matter which must be considered from many angles, perhaps the most important of which may be economic. Economically challenged countries will not have the resources to deal resolutely with health problems that arise among its people. It is the economic strain on families, especially poorer families, that may be responsible for much of the mental health fallout from the virus.

Already many of these families were facing mental issues before the virus struck. There are those who argue that, in the context of the recent viral spike, the Government may have to consider a lockdown of the economy. It is easy for interested sectors, especially the health sector, to say this. But a Government has many other things to consider, especially the viability of people's livelihood and its relatedness to the mental health status of the population. In other words, it must consider whether economic matters should be held hostage to COVID-19 concerns, and whether concerns about the virus should be subjected to economic necessities. To me, neither position can be made the enemy of the other.

The truth is that the virus is with us and will be with us for some time to come. We have learnt a lot about it since February. Wisdom would dictate that we use the information we have garnered to establish a careful working relationship between containing the virus while taking care that our economy remains viable within the constraints which we have to work. How we strike that happy medium is not dependent on Government alone, as I have argued in this space. There has never been a crisis in recent memory that demands more of the collective will of a people to address it.

This is especially true in the context of the emerging mental health problems that we are seeing in the society.

Even before the virus struck, mental health concern was a serious issue in Jamaica. The truth is, as a society, we have not paid enough attention to the whole matter of treating mental health issues and to free them from the stigma attached to people who manifest these problems. COVID-19 is bringing us to a new place of recognition that even the healthiest person can suddenly show mental health issues if they should become infected by the virus.

In fact, brain fogging, delirium, nervousness, and unexplained anxiety, among other problems, are some of the symptoms that many who recover from the virus continue to manifest. They are part of the group called “long haulers” and many have joined groups that try to understand this new phenomenon of mental debilitation arising from coronavirus infection. This is one of the strong reasons for not wanting to contract this virus. No one knows what the long-term implications of infection can be. No one.

In the weeks and even months to come, people will continue to show levels of depression and anxiety, stress, loneliness, and other mental problems, even if they do not come down with the virus themselves. These are existential problems in the community that we all must deal with. It is good that through the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 Mental Health Response Programme there is a strong community component to address these rising problems. It is at the level of the community that we can share with each other and help our brothers and sisters to heal.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the book WEEP: Why President Donald J Trump Does Not Deserve A Second Term. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

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