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18th Jan 2021

Coronavirus

WHO warning on lockdown mental health

  • Online consultations, particularly via video chat, can provide a feasible alternative to deliver psychological care and therapy during the pandemic (Photo: Ian Panelo)

The coronavirus crisis and the restrictive measures that many countries are taking to contain the outbreak can have a negative impact on people's mental health and well-being, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.

"Isolation, physical distancing, the closure of schools and workplaces are challenges that affect us, and it is natural to feel stress, anxiety, fear and loneliness at this time," the director of the European branch of the WHO, Hans Kluge, said on Thursday (26 March).

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As more and more people are obliged to remain in home quarantine or isolation with possible or proven coronavirus infection, experts agree that it is important to consider the effects of this pandemic on the mental health of people - while providing psychological support for the general public.

"It is essential to address the public mental health of people during the following weeks," Kluge said.

"This is not going to be a sprint, but a marathon," he added, urging countries to prepare their medical services for the mental health of people.

According to behavioural psychologist Virgine De Vos, this crisis could generate symptoms of depression or lack of participation over the next weeks.

However, she believes that one of the biggest problems for people's mental wellbeing can be the shortage of testing and lack of diagnosis.

"A lot of people who have symptoms cannot be tested so they do not know if they have coronavirus or not. This [uncertainty] can have a very negative impact on people's mental health," Virgine De Vos said.

Meanwhile, the European Federation of Psychologists Association believes that online consultations, particularly via video chat, can provide a feasible alternative to deliver psychological care and therapy during this pandemic.

"Mental health should be part of the public health response to Covid-19," stressed the mental health expert from WHO Aiysha Malik, who believes that health workers and children are among the groups psychologically most-affected by this crisis.

Doctors at risk too

Besides the clinical pressure that medical professionals face every day at work, they are also considered to be a high-risk group. One-in-10 coronavirus cases registered in Europe are from this sector.

On Thursday, a dozen of European organisations representing health professionals urge countries to ensure adequate working conditions.

"Staff must have breaks and time off between shifts, to be able to carry on in what could be a long-term global crisis. Working in such conditions takes its toll on the psychological health of staff, so appropriate support services must also be put in place," they said in a statement.

The WHO recommends rotating shifts in the most stressful positions, increase communication between work teams, having a psychosocial team in hospitals and ensuring that frontline workers have extensive experience.

Additionally, the pandemic and the school closures can also negatively affect children's mental health as they may no longer have that sense of structure and stimulation that is provided by that environment, said Malik.

"Children are likely to be experiencing worry, anxiety and fear and this can include the hopes and fears that are very similar to the fears adults are experiencing: fear of dying, fear of their relatives dying, fear of what it means to receive medical treatments," she added.

However, according to De Vos, the attitude of the parents during the crisis is fundamental

"If the parents show that they are anxious that will have a negative impact on the children's behaviour," she said, adding that stress is something that children perceive very well.

The WHO announced that the agency is preparing a set of guidelines addressing children's mental wellbeing for youngsters aged four to 10 which will be soon released.

Additionally, Malik stressed that the stigmatisation of the virus is a "very concerning issue" because it can lead to discrimination.

"Don't stigmatise people that recovered from the virus and don't attribute the virus to concrete geography or ethnicity," Malik recommended, adding that fighting the coronavirus outbreak requires a collective effort.

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