Pandemics are not new. The world has experienced these before. But the worldwide spread of novel coronavirus with strictest lockdown and social distancing norms for containing the virus has taken people to a severe level of seclusion, raising concerns over mental distress.
Treated as unknown pneumonia cases in late December, in Wuhan, China, the strain 2019-nCoV coronavirus was identified on January 7, 2020. Since then, coronavirus has infected 4.8 milion cases with over 318k confirmed deaths by May 19.
Australia detected its first case in Victoria on January 25th when a Chinese man returned to Australia from Wuhan, China, carrying the SARS-COV 2 infection. To contain the virus, Australian government closed its borders on 20th March for all non-residents with social distancing rules being imposed from 21st March. Non-essential services which included social gathering venues such as pubs and clubs were also closed down.
Mental Health Issues- Area of Concern
Restricted within the walls with social distancing rules imposed and living with a significant challenge of survival, Australians are experiencing range of mental illness such as Anxiety, worry, or fear.
While confinement led to a plummeted number of COVID-19 cases reporting per day, number of cases related to anxiety or depression surged. The COVID-19 situation intensified the anxiety levels of people who were already struggling from the bushfire disaster that happened last summer.
The third ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey revealed that:
- Loneliness has been singled out as the most reported cause of personal stress for Australians during April, affecting 28% women and 16% men
- Around 19% respondents experienced difficulties maintaining a healthy lifestyle, a problem more persistent among those aged 18 to 64 years (22%) than those aged 65 years and over (9%)
While anxiety may decline over time with the virus being contained, a significant set of people including Health care workers, people placed in quarantine, and individuals with life-threatening cases of COVID-19 may get subjected to long-term or mental health problems.
Mental health experts say that the psychological effects from coronavirus and the economic downturn is expected to stay for long term prompting Australia to improve its ability to handle a long-term surge in depression, anxiety and other disorders.
People with a history of pre-existing or existing anxiety disorders, existing health anxiety specially people worrying about having or contracting illnesses and other mental health disorders such as depression, and post-traumatic stress, are at a higher risk of experiencing heightened anxiety levels during the COVID-19 outbreak, requiring more attention and access to treatment during this period.
A Deep Dive at Type of Population Group Prone to Increased Mental Health \Risk
- People who have pre-existing anxiety disorders or mental health problems are likely to experience substantial anxiety and distress
- Health care workers such as nurses, doctors and supporting staff may suffer high levels of anxiety. Incidents such as watching patients die may lead to long term mental distress
- Long and irregular hours and heavy workloads also induce increased level of stress and cause mental distress including burnout
- Despite all precautions, healthcare workers tend to constantly worry about being exposed to the virus, unknowingly spreading it to patients and family. They also reinforce further social isolation by avoiding contact with vulnerable family members, causing further social isolation.
- Intense media scrutiny and a lack of understanding from the community, including hostility at times, adds to the stress.
- People who had been quarantined are also living an unpleasant experience which may lead to long-term negative psychological effects such as depression, PTSD symptoms, confusion, anger, boredom and loneliness. Following quarantine, a person may live with fears of getting infection themselves, or infecting others coupled with fear of having inadequate supplies or experiencing financial loss.
- People who had been unemployed or working under contract may also experience severe mental distress as the pandemic causes economic instability. Job insecurity is connected with anxiety, financial strain, and increased rates of depression and anxiety.
Professor Bryant further said that the government needs to ensure services "are available to people who are badly affected and have few resources" amid financial hardship, and initiatives put in place "need to be put in place for long enough."
Black Dog Institute Chief Psychiatrist Samuel Harvey said “suicide rates went high as per records from previous economic downturns including the global financial crisis and that Australia should be well equipped to handle the mental health care system as worst impacts are yet to surface”.
Measures To Combat Mental Distress And Anxiety
National Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan is requesting people to avail telehealth services to address mental health and wellbeing.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the government has made investment in providing support services to reduce mental health issues during the coronavirus outbreak and said that 50% of mental health consultations are currently being done through telehealth, a service that provides virtual appointments through telephone or over video conferencing with health professionals.
Mr. Morrison also stated:
- A part of $1.1 billion funding, allocated to protect against pandemic impacts, also covers mental health services.
- $35 million worth telehealth mental health consultations had been conducted since mid-March.
- Lifeline Australia, Kids Helpline, MensLine Australia are providing services online and on phone, but also particularly through GP.
Black Dog Institute has listed few measures to improve mental distress and sail through a depressing situation:
- Accessing trustworthy meaningful information on signs, symptoms, risk factors, and prevention measures, and other health related queries help in reducing community fear and panic.
- Technology-empowered mental health services such as mobile apps, telehealth, and providing treatment online psychological support may provide relief to anxious individuals and communities.
- Proper training and availability of protective equipment and access to psychological support, have helped lessen fears and reduce psychological distress.
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