Every day, the world is waking up to a state of indefinite crisis. COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus, is spreading at an exponential pace, with more individuals testing positive each day. As we act to delay its spreading and await the results of the extensive research carried out in order to find a possible cure or vaccine, mental health issues are already becoming a concern. With an increase in symptoms of depression, OCD and anxiety already being reported, we need to consider the possible mental health reactions that may arise once the current coronavirus health crisis is finally over to help prepare us to eventually deal with its ramifications.
As frightening and even overwhelming as the coronavirus epidemic is, this isn’t the first time the modern world has faced a sweeping pandemic: from HIV/AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to SARS (another form of the coronavirus) in the ‘00s, and Ebola in the ‘10s, individuals, communities and entire populations have dealt with—and survived—a seemingly unstoppable disease.
It could therefore be beneficial to look at previous cases of global-scale, life-threatening illnesses, as we try to understand the mental health issues that may arise from the current corona outbreak.
A 2020 meta-analysis focused specifically on situations necessitating quarantine, and the impact this had on individuals’ mental health. Overall, the study noted that prolonged quarantines resulted in more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD), as well as greater confusion and anger. All this was found to be due to the quarantine’s long periods of isolation, a fear of infection, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, misinformation, a loss of finances, and stigma.
Tying into these themes are two major mental health disorder families—anxiety and depression, both of which have been shown to be affected by the present coronavirus pandemic. The process seems to be incremental: at first, many individuals respond to the risk of contracting corona with increased anxiety. This can manifest itself through the symptoms of a number of anxiety-related disorders. Among them are: cleanliness-themed OCD, due to a global focus on sanitation and hygiene; panic, over the financial hit local and international markets are experiencing as a result; or agoraphobia and social anxiety, over instructions to stay at home and self-isolate.
Already having one of these conditions prior to the current pandemic could cause patients an enormous amount of stress—compare telling someone with cleanliness OCD to spend even more time scrubbing away at their skin, to telling an alcoholic they must drink copious amounts of alcohol to protect themselves from illness.
But even someone who had never before experienced a severe mental health crisis could, under the current situation, find themselves suffering from extreme anxiety, both over their own health and the health of their loved ones. In fact, due to the rapid increase in the rate of infection, as well as a growing mortality rate, many individuals are left feeling not just anxious, but helpless. This, in turn, can lead to symptoms of depression.
Following the initial wave of anxiety-centric symptoms, depression has also begun settling in, as an isolating new routine becomes the norm for so many. Left alone to ruminate over their thoughts, fears, and loneliness, many individuals in isolation may develop symptoms of depression, as was already observed in a 2004 study following mental health of those quarantined due to SARS. Being removed from one’s regular interactions can increase the weight of their own distressing thoughts, while external perspectives and sources of support are cut out of the picture. As with anxiety, the repetitiveness produced by our attempts to protect our physical health increases the prevalence and severity of symptoms of depression while we remain self-isolated.
With the COVID-19 still spreading and no cure in immediate sight, it is hard to gauge its eventual scope, or in other words, what we will eventually face. Still, as mentioned above, the present global pandemic is not without precedent, and as such, we can turn to past historical outbreaks to understand in what ways individuals are likely to react to this one.
First, a continuation and expansion of both depression and anxiety are likely to occur. Adverse mental health conditions that arise from devastating trauma are known to reverberate well beyond the actual event. Moreover, the ramifications of living through trauma or other extreme conditions have been shown to sometimes pass on to the following generations. Adding to this is the more concrete consequences of such a monumental occurrence, such as a possible economic crisis and a shifting global market, and it is reasonable to assume that the symptoms of both disorder families will continue to hold a greater level of prominence within the general population.
There is one more mental health disorder that stands to become more common once the coronavirus is contained—PTSD. As mentioned earlier, this disorder was found to arise from experiences of quarantine, as well as be the result of trauma or extremely distressing situations. PTSD is therefore likely to appear at a greater rate among the many individuals who are currently in isolation. And PTSD symptoms, be they intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, decreased mood, distorted beliefs and more, would require a greater level of support on the governmental, professional and social levels, as this mental health disorder and individual symptoms will likely spread just as widely as the virus that initiated them.
All this is to say that now and in the coming months, it is vitally important to keep in touch with your loved ones, and yourself. Ask people what they need, and check in with yourself, as well. Despite current limitations, there are still options to mitigate some of the mental health difficulties that have arisen over our handling the coronavirus threat: online gatherings with your loved ones, reducing stress-inducing activities when possible and incorporating enjoyable one into your new routine, as well as tapping into a support system that is relatively stable in these times of uncertainty.
Once the coronavirus begins to be contained, and more options are added to the ones currently available, you can start considering more long-term options, as well: psychotherapy treatments such as psychodynamics or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have been shown to offer patients much-needed support; Deep TMS has been FDA-cleared to treat both depression and OCD, as a non-invasive treatment option that has been proven to offer symptoms relief; psychopharmacology is also a viable option for those dealing with mental health conditions or symptoms; and working to strengthen your bonds with the people you feel you can turn to and care about are all important factors that can help you recuperate, once this state of emergency is at least in part behind us.