Mental Health and COVID-19

Dr. Valda Henry

Mental Health is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a “State of mental well-being in which people cope well with the many stresses of life, can realise their own potential, can function productively and fruitfully, and are able to contribute to their communities.”[1]  The United Nations warns that the coronavirus could lead to a global mental health crisis, as millions of people worldwide are surrounded by death and disease and are forced into isolation, poverty and anxiety by the pandemic of COVID-19.

Mental health is often viewed negatively, and many do not want to talk about it.  There is a lot of stigma attached to mental health, and this may be even higher in the Caribbean.  This stigma prevents people from even acknowledging mental health issues and so it follows that treatment is limited or non-existent. Dr. Oluwakemi M Linda Banks, a Clinical Psychologist from

Anguilla asserts that many people don’t talk about their stresses, because of stigma and they are more inclined to minimize them by saying, “It is God’s will.”  She states that people need to begin to talk about and acknowledge their feelings.

After Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica and several other Caribbean Countries in 2017, I stated that every person who experienced Maria should receive counselling for Maria affected us in ways that many, including employers, never acknowledged.  I am sure many people, including myself, never sought counselling.  We just worked our way through it.  Part of the denial may be due to the stigma attached with seeking help for mental health issues.

COVID-19 has put mental health on the front burner and highlighted the different  levels of mental illness.  The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) President and CEO, Mr. Johnny C. Taylor, states that COVID-19 is taking a toll on our minds and emotions in a million little ways. Now more than ever employers should double down against stigmas and ensure that employees are aware of the resources, benefits and accommodations available.  Dr. Jessica Gold, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Washington University of St. Louis,  writing in the “Time Magazine,” May 13, 2020 issue, posits that COVID-19 is actually what mental health needed to stop being stigmatised and to start being valued.

Mr. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, argues that mental health is at the heart of our humanity, and enables us to lead rich, fulfilling lives and participate in our communities.  He identifies a number of ways that COVID-19 is increasing psychological suffering:

  1. Grief at the loss of loved ones
  2. Shock at the loss of jobs
  3. Isolation and restrictions on movement
  4. Difficult family dynamics
  5. Uncertainty and fear of the future

He goes on to add that mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, are some of the greatest causes of misery in the world.  He identified the most at risk in the COVID-19 era as, “Frontline healthcare workers, older people, adolescents and young people, those with pre-existing mental health conditions and those caught up in conflict and crisis,” (UN News, May 14, 2020).

Mr. Guterres urges governments, civil society, health authorities and others to come together to urgently address the mental health dimension of this pandemic.

Dr. Banks posited that healthcare workers, including persons in the mental health field, are overwhelmed, as they have to deal with their own issues, that of their clients and new clients and patients being served during COVID-19.  Parents, children and teachers, she asserts are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and stress, with online learning, remote work, the economy and the COVID situation.  Parents and teachers are complaining about the stresses, while children do not enjoy the role shift involved in having their   parents and grandparents  teaching them.

One grandparent reported that her granddaughter said with tears in her eyes “I don’t want you to be my teacher.  I want you  to be my grandma again.”     Parents and grandparents now find it challenging to balance their other responsibilities with their  new role as teacher, especially now when some of them are resuming their regular workload as well.  Dr. Banks stated that children are finding out that their parents may not be as knowledgeable as they previously thought, and this may undermine their confidence in them.

Dr. Schyuler Esprit, at the beginning of the “Stay Home Orders,” and curfew in the Caribbean, on her Facebook Page on March 25, 2020,  exhorted parents to not stress over the online classes and focus instead on spending quality time, building memories and making their children feel safe, content and loved.  She encouraged parents to honour and validate the feelings and needs of their children.

Teachers are also under tremendous pressure with longer days and greater demands from parents trying to cope and they are lamenting the absence of support services for them.  In Anguilla, she states, there is a feeling of the “invisible enemy,’ and persons are anxious about when it will strike and how long will it last.  Social distancing is creating much emotional turmoil, especially among the older population and families unable to visit their families.  The separation from families at the time of their death and inability to attend their funerals are also a major source of mental anguish.

So, what is the state of mental health globally, as a result of COVID-19?  A study among employees in the United States conducted by SHRM revealed that work-related concerns left more than 40% of employees feeling hopeless, burned out or exhausted as they grapple with the changes in their lives caused by COVID-19. The World Health Organisation reported an increase in the prevalence of distress: 35% in China, 60% in china and 45% in the US.   WHO also reported 33% prevalence of depression and anxiety in Ethiopia’s Amhara Regional State; a threefold increase compared to pre-pandemic levels (UN News, May 2020)?

An Internet search did not reveal any published numbers for the Caribbean. However, it is safe to believe that there is  an increase in worry, anxiety, hopelessness and depression in the Caribbean.  VF Inc hopes to be able to provide some data within the next few weeks as it begins the administration of a COVID-19 Impact Survey among Caribbean companies…

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