The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on global health with the aftershocks reverberating through both physical and mental health.
What are the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health?
Restrictions aimed at controlling the virus combined with economic uncertainty have had a significant effect on societies, curtailing freedoms and heightening isolation and loneliness.
The pandemic has also disrupted mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide, meaning that people are not getting the help they need at a critical time.1
The short-term concerns are evident with people struggling to make sense of what is happening, how it has impacted loved ones and the routines and habits that were the core of their existence. But the lingering damage will have to be addressed and dealt with long after vaccine programmes have been completed.
EU Commissioner Stella Kyriakides stated: “This comes at a high price not only for those affected, but also for our societies. Mental health affects how we think, feel and act – at every stage of our lives.
“As a clinical psychologist, I am acutely and painfully aware of the damaging effects the pandemic could bring about on the mental health of all of us, and whilst we cannot yet evaluate the risk, we know that the long-term impacts will be significant.
“The kaleidoscope of mental health challenges ranges from anxiety to loneliness and depression. We need to pay close attention to the signs our body gives us.”2
The spike of these corrosive factors leaps from a worrying trend of increasing need with reports stating that every sixth adult in the European Union – 84 million people – was experiencing some form mental ill-health before the pandemic.3
It added that the poor mental health costs the EU 4% of GDP in lost productivity and social expenditure which adds pressures to employment and income, key stability factors in mental health wellbeing.
Anxiety and depression levels have been heightened by the comprehensive change of circumstances forced by the pandemic with people denied the company of loved ones, friends, relatives and work colleagues. Add to that families coping with home-schooling children and witnessing the erosion their education and friendship groups and you have destabilising forces pressing at every aspect of life.
This is fuelling a rise in, and worsening of, conditions such as insomnia, depression, stress while people with pre-existing conditions are also more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection and potentially a higher risk of severe outcomes. Exposure to the virus can also lead to neurological issues such as delirium, agitation and stroke.2
Five ways to improve your mental health during COVID-19 times
- Media Audit. The world is awash with bad news, ill-informed opinion and scare stories and, with the global reach of social media, it is easy to become fixated with negativity. Doom-scrolling, the practice of cycling through a procession of bad news on internet feeds, has become a disturbing trend that can have a huge impact on mood and well-being. WHO, and others, advise a measured consumption of information, concentrating on a few trusted sources and setting boundaries on how much you read, watch or listen. 4 Consider turning off automatic notifications, limiting social media intake, and only watching selected bulletins on the 24-hour news cycle.
- Take Care of Yourself. Physical distancing, good respiratory care and hand-washing are vital aspects of self-care but eating healthily and developing routines will support both physical and psychological well-being. It is vital to eat a balanced diet to boost the immune system and sticking to defined meal times will also give purpose to days, particularly if you are off work or have to self-isolate. Systematic reviews of diets have shown that poor nutrition, from early years on, can contribute to poorer mental health in children and adolescents.5 Sleep supports the immune system and combats low energy so it is important to create an environment where sleep comes easily, such as adopting a sleep schedule, limiting screen time in the evening and creating a calm, cool temperature bedroom free from computer gadgets, to enhance relaxation. Breathing exercises can also defray tension and make it easier to sleep.6
- Nurture Relationships. Our family, friends and work colleagues are more important now than ever and mutual support is an inspiring element of how society has responded to the pandemic. The Mental Health Foundation has the following tips for making them an integral element of a support network.7
- Give time – put more time aside to connect with your friends and family.
- Be present – really pay attention to the other people in your life and try not to be distracted by your phone or your work or other interests.
- Listen – take in what others are saying and try to understand it and to focus on their needs in that moment.
- Let yourself be listened to – share how you are feeling honestly, and allow yourself to be heard and supported by others.
- Recognise unhealthy relationships – harmful relationships can make us unhappy. Recognising this can help us to move forward and find solutions.
- Focus on the positive. COVID-19 has laid a distinct set of challenges to our mental health and it can be difficult to grasp positivity but WHO, and others, recommend exploring and celebrating good news stories such as people who have survived COVID-19, the efforts of healthcare staff, charity workers, selfless acts from members of the public and the incredible work of scientist and pharmaceutical companies in researching novel vaccines and new treatments.
- Seek Professional Help. If you are still feeling overwhelmed then you can seek support and, even though healthcare systems are stretched, there are services that can help. It could be a professional counsellor or peer support from people with lived experience of mental health. There are many online options and helplines across Europe so you don’t have to be isolated with whatever is troubling you.8Also, keep in mind that seeking treatment from a certified healthcare professional is always an option and that the right medication adapted to your needs can help you through this difficult moment.
- World Health Organization. The impact of COVID-19 on mental, neurological and substance use services. Accessed January 2021. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/978924012455
- European Commission. World Mental Health Day. October 2020. Accessed January 2021. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_20_1865
- Open Access Government. Beyond COVID-19: The call for a European mental health strategy. August 2020. Accessed January 2021. https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/beyond-covid-19-the-call-for-a-european-mental-health-strategy/93542/
- World Health Organization. Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak. March 2020. Accessed January 2021. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/mental-health-considerations.pdf
- O’Neil A, Quirk SE, Housden S, et al. Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Am J Public Health. 2014;104(10):e31-e42. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302110
- Medalie L. Why it is important to get a good night’s sleep during the coronavirus outbreak. University of Chicago, April 2020. Accessed January 2021. https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/coronavirus-disease-covid-19/advice-for-sleeping-well-during-the-covid-19-outbreak
- Mental Health Foundation. Nurturing our relationships during the coronavirus pandemic. January 2020. Accessed January 2021. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/nurturing-our-relationships-during-coronavirus-pandemic
- Mental Health Europe. Helplines and Services to support your mental health in COVID-19. Accessed January 2021. https://www.mhe-sme.org/library/helplines/