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Doctor’s Note: Coronavirus and the toll on Mental Health

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people around the world with ill mental health was staggering.

According to the latest estimates, close to one billion people have a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety.

With the continuing pandemic, and the health and economic consequences becoming increasingly apparent, concern for our mental health, both now and in the future, is growing.

Fear and anxiety have increased

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Although we do not yet have a complete picture of how the pandemic has affected people’s mental health, and indeed this picture will change over time, it is clear that the impact is widespread.

As the infection spread throughout the world, so did fear – of being infected or becoming ill ourselves, and of seeing family and friends affected.

Anxiety levels have gone up too as our daily routines changed substantially, as we tried to balance our work lives with home-schooling, and as our access to care for other health conditions became more difficult. This is to say nothing of the isolation felt by people living alone or without regular contact with their usual networks.

As the months have gone on, and many of us have been able to return to some semblance of a normal life, some of the initial worry and anxiety has eased. But this is by no means universal and questions remain: When will this be over? Will I be able to keep my job? If I lose my job, will I be able to find another?

What we can do to protect our mental health

We know that a hug cannot be replaced by hours of video conferencing. Physical contact is essential for human beings. But we are in the unique and unprecedented position of having to sacrifice some of the things we would typically do to stay safe.

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Fortunately, there is much that we can do to protect our mental health during these uncertain times.

1. Have a routine: Keep up with daily routines as much as possible, or make new ones. Get up and go to bed at similar times every day. Keep up with personal hygiene. Eat healthy meals at regular times. Exercise regularly. Allocate time for working and time for resting and make time for doing things you enjoy.

2. Stay in touch: Social contact is important. Keep in regular contact with people close to you by telephone and online channels if you cannot see them in person. Even if it is just talking to a neighbour over the fence or across the balcony, the social contact can help you stay connected to the people around you and feel part of a community. Help or support others in your community, too, if you can.

3. Avoid alcohol and drugs: Limit the amount of alcohol you drink or do not drink alcohol at all. Do not start drinking alcohol if you have not done so before. Avoid using alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with fear, anxiety, boredom and social isolation.

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4. Minimise newsfeeds and screen time: Stay informed about what is happening, but restrict the amount of time you spend checking on the latest news if it makes you feel anxious. Check in once or twice a day. Be aware of how much time you spend in front of a screen every day. Make sure that you take regular breaks from on-screen activities. Use your social media accounts to promote positive and hopeful stories and correct misinformation wherever you see it.

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5. Reach out when you need help: Talk to someone you trust. If you feel overwhelmed with sadness or anxiety, seek professional help.

More investment needed

On average, governments spend less than 2 percent of their health budgets on mental health. This is not enough.

Relatively few people around the world have access to quality mental health services. In low- and middle-income countries, more than 75 percent of people with mental health conditions receive no treatment for their condition at all. The serious gaps that still exist in mental healthcare are a result of chronic under-investment over many decades in mental health promotion, prevention and care.

Now is the time to redress the balance and scale up investment in mental health, at all levels. Our futures depend on it.

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