Why Mental Health Matters In Our Fight Against Covid-19

To truly recover from Covid-19, there must be healing both physically and mentally. This is the second of our three-part mental health special.

Why Mental Health Matters In Our Fight Against Covid-19
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The world has never felt as mentally stressed as now, in our battle against Covid-19. At press time, more than 26,000 people in Singapore have contracted it. Globally, 4.53million from across 212 countries and territories are sick and over 307,000 are dead. The global economy is headed for a deep recession. There is no vaccine in sight yet.

If your heart beat a little faster reading that last paragraph, you are not alone. The Samaritans of Singapore received a jump of over 22 per cent in the number of calls to its 24-hour hotline in March 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

The Singapore Association for Mental Health reported an increase in helpline calls by a whopping 50 percent in February and March 2020, compared to the average between April 2019 and January 2020. Common worries among callers were about their health and economic woes.

If the physically healthy are struggling with uncertainty and fear, imagine how much tougher it must be for Covid-19 patients, some of whom spend weeks in the Intensive Care Unit.

Even those who only suffer mild symptoms report feeling worry and grief (or even guilt if they had spread the disease to others) as they are quarantined and treated in isolation.

The war against Covid-19

Covid-19 affects everyone, including the rich, powerful and famous. Among the patients include American singer Pink (and her three-year-old son Jameson), Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson and Idris Elba, as well as Britain’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Pink said, in the same breath: “Having access to healthcare matters, and loving ourselves and each other, and taking care of our mental health matters.”

She is right. Studies reveal that physical illness increases a patient’s risk developing severe depressive illness. Medical journals like Scientific American warn of increasing suicide rates due to Covid-19 as figures keep climbing.

Even healthcare professionals are not spared. French doctor Bernard Gonzalez and New York emergency doctor Lorna Breen both committed suicide after they were diagnosed.  

The fact that depression is known as the common cold of mental illness shows how prevalent it is. According to a nationwide study by Institute of Mental Health, one in 16 people has battled MDD at some point but more than three-quarters of people with such mental disorders did not seek professional help. They cited two common reasons: fear of stigma, and the inability to recognise symptoms.

Depression can be hard to detect. It is not about crying your eyes out every day. It can be as innocuous as having trouble concentrating or remembering details, feeling fatigued, and sleeping too little or too much – sounds like what distracted or busy Singaporeans face daily.   

Other common traits range from a deepening sense of hopelessness and pessimism, to digestive problems and physical pains. But the most dangerous of them all is suicidal thoughts or even attempting it.

Illness or chronic pain can cause patients to become depressed

In fact, when I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD), I had no idea that I was depressed.

I had lost a sister to cancer over a year before, so I was feeling sad. It was 2007; nobody talked about mental wellness and nobody I knew had depression. But my family doctor had spotted the signs and urged me to seek treatment. 

For me, however, depression lasted longer than the common cold. In 2015, I had a terrible fall that left my smile severely lopsided, my face droopy and one side of my body numb. My injuries included nerve damage, a tear in my rotator cuff tendon, and a sprained wrist so bad I couldn’t hold a pen.

Over the next few months, I sought treatment by specialists and attended physiotherapy, acupuncture and chiropractor sessions faithfully. Not only did the pain worsen, I also struggled with drowsiness in the day from my meds and nightmares at night.

For the second time, I wondered if life was indeed worth living. But never did I realise I was suffering from depression again. I was merely grappling with a physical ailment, yes?  

I was shuttled from specialist to specialist who prescribed painkillers but failed to diagnose why my pain was worsening. One young doc even dismissed my symptoms that they didn’t seem serious. He lifted my right arm up high — and hit an invisible barrier. That sharp pain made me double over and I started bawling in his office!  

That outburst led to a fresh diagnosis of frozen shoulder — the pain turned out to be real and not just in my mind — and a referral to a psychiatrist. He eventually diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and MDD, due to chronic pain.

In the same way, fighting Covid-19 doesn’t end with nose swabs being declared negative. While the earlier focus was on fighting the fires in hospitals, governments have begun setting up dedicated support resources to help their populations cope with mental wellness issues. Singapore’s newly announced National Care Hotline (tel: 1800-202-6868) is one such initiative.

Covid-19 has unceremoniously thrust the importance and urgency of mental health wellness into the limelight. It’s a painful lesson, but the world is learning that mental resilience is as important as physical healing.

If this opens up honest conversations, improves our mental wellness preparedness and empowers more to seek help, we will at the very least learn how to build a stronger world for the future generations.

Our fight against Covid-19 has thrown mental health into the spotlight.
(Image: Getty Images)

Feel good to feel better

Learn to manage mental wellness with these tried-and-tested tips:

  • Stick to your routine

A routine helps you prepare for the day ahead. So get out of bed at your usual time and have your favourite coffee. By setting you mentally on track for a “normal” day, it prevents you from giving in to any gnawing sense of helplessness.  

  • Exercise

While you may have exercised previously to lose 5kg, your goal now is not to watch your scale. Don’t feel up to taking group classes? Start with simple 20-minute walks. The endorphins your body releases during exercise help reduce your brain’s perception of pain. 

  • Stay grateful

Looking for the silver lining can improve your mood. Write about it in your journal or take photos. Or, document your finds on social media. Seeing physical proof of things that make you happy or grateful can be that paradigm shift you need.

  • Be kind to yourself

Can’t deal with things or people right now? Take time off for self-care. Don’t feel obliged to make your day “count”. I have watched a movie and eaten a meal alone, because I needed a time-out. If you’re feeling a little better today than yesterday, it’s already a win! 

For other mental health-related support, visit here.

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