COVID-19’s mental health toll

Whether echoed in the midst of political rows, or during public appeals for assistance by struggling families, or in daily conversations, the chorus “people are hurting” has come to define the COVID-19 pandemic as much as the virus itself.

But what is the quantifiable impact of the pandemic on the mental and emotional well-being of Bahamians?

Regrettably, statistics, or projections obtained from a representative sampling of the population, have not been published, but what is known from studies and surveys abroad is that the pandemic has triggered a surge in rates of depression and stress, and has had a negative impact on the treatment of diagnosed mental health conditions.

Though much of the economy has been reopened, individuals suffering from new or worsened mental health challenges could go on to struggle on the job and in society, with implications for household stability and workplace productivity.

The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) said earlier this year that mental health disorders in the Caribbean and worldwide are now recognized as the fifth major non-communicable disease, and a major threat to health and economic development in the 21st Century.

Dr. Itai Danovitch, chair of the Cedars Sinai Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, who leads a team studying the mental health impact of the pandemic, said last November, “National surveys are beginning to show what we expected, which is that there are increased prevalence rates of stress and depression.”

Danovitch said those surveys also show reduced initiation of treatment for patients with substance use disorders.

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) survey of 130 countries, the pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93 percent of countries worldwide.

The survey, which the WHO said provided the first global data on the pandemic’s impact on access to mental health services, was published ahead of the organization’s global online advocacy event calling for increased mental health investments in the wake of COVID-19.

For those at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19, the WHO further advised that psychological impacts for such individuals included anxiety, and feeling stressed or angry about the added health dangers they face.

As The Bahamas was grappling with the scourges of its second wave that resulted in prolonged restrictions and business closures, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) was sounding the alarm on the pandemic’s potential to worsen risk factors for suicide in the region.

A Tribune report last year quoted the Bahamas Red Cross’ health and wellness coordinator as having received over 200 calls in a single month from residents suffering from financial stress, with some callers indicating thoughts of suicide.

Though not accompanied by supporting research data on causation and contributing factors, annual police statistics showed a 38 percent increase in suicides for 2020 compared to the previous year, with most who took their lives being between the ages of 18 and 45.

When one takes account of the financial insecurity, disruptions to daily life and relationships, fear and uncertainty brought about by COVID-19 – coupled with insufficient investment in nationwide mental health services – the number of Bahamians suffering in silence from the pandemic’s psychological impact could be staggering.

Prolonged unemployment and social assistance programs where some fall through the cracks, have resulted in more and more homeless single parents making public appeals for help, with members of the public making inquiries about the best ways to assist families in dire need.

In Barbados, the government launched an adopt a family program, funded in part by the state, where members of the public are encouraged to make donations to assist in providing monthly stipends to the country’s most vulnerable families during the pandemic.

Program beneficiaries are also granted land access for the purpose of backyard farming, so as to help vulnerable families to help themselves.

As the economic toll of the pandemic continues to mount, The Bahamas must focus more attention on the psychological toll, because the nation’s wealth is still primarily rooted in the nation’s health – both physical and mental. 

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