Mental health issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic are more common than long-COVID, the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) yesterday said while discussing public education on mental health issues related to COVID-19.
According to SLMA President Dr. Padma Gunaratne, mental health issues are caused by various factors, including anxiety related to COVID-19, vaccine-related fears, and financial difficulties.
“We often see more people facing mental illness due to COVID-19 than we see people with long-COVID,” Dr. Gunaratne said, explaining that there is discourse about long-COVID but public education on mental health issues was also important.
She added that long-COVID is often seen in persons who have chronic illness, especially related to the lungs and kidneys.
Speaking about mental health issues among adults, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Consultant Psychiatrist Dr. Sajeewana Amarasingha said: “This is three-fold. There is the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, impact caused by post-COVID and vaccination, and financial and social issues.”
He added that the fear of getting COVID-19 and having to undergo quarantine is slowly reducing and that some level of fear is good as it forces people to be careful. However, in some instances, the fear is excessive.
“Our brains, minds and bodies are connected, so any feelings of fear can have mental as well as physical symptoms. This includes increased heart rate, shivering, rapid breathing, breathing difficulties, and sweating,” Dr. Amarasingha explained.
The physical symptoms caused by fear, like breathing difficulties, can make people believe they have contracted COVID-19, which makes them constantly seek medical advice or get tested.
The psychiatrist added that post-COVID syndrome or long-COVID symptoms like fatigue can increase fear-related symptoms as well.
“The majority will experience fatigue and breathing difficulties following physical exertion for two to three months. There is no need to develop excessive fear about this and, if you require medical advice, you can consult a doctor or call the SLMA 247 hotline,” Dr. Amarasingha said, adding that the NIMH has the 1926 hotline as well.
In terms of vaccination and related fears, he explained that persons should always trust verified sources like the World Health Organization or the Health Ministry as opposed to claims made on social media.
According to Dr. Amarasingha, the country’s COVID-19 fatalities, which at one point exceeded 200 deaths in a day, could also have an impact on one’s mental health. He explained that funerals and other rituals help people deal with grief, but many could not partake in such activities due to the pandemic. In addition to this, there is a belief that one should suppress feelings of grief.
However, Dr. Amarasingha encouraged persons to talk about their feelings.
The third factor that could impact mental health during the pandemic is financial and social issues. Several people faced salary cuts and a loss of income, and many others had to adapt to working from home.
“Some people believe that family unity increases when people are at home, but based on calls we receive, we see that there is any increase in conflict at home. Various family members are also under stress, and this can make people lose their temper more often, resulting in conflict. In some instances, family members who are not on the best terms with each other are forced to be together,” he added.
While adults battle their own mental health issues, children too face similar issues, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced children to remain at home and learn remotely.
According to Consultant Psychiatrist at the Medical Faculty of Peradeniya University Dr. Pabasari Ginige, adults do not always understand the impact this can have on children, or even if they do, are not aware of the steps they should take.
However, she added that there has been an increase in mental health services being sought for children.
According to Dr. Ginige, the signs of mental health issues in children depend on the age of the child but can include anger, stubbornness, and nightmares. Such children may also fight with their siblings and neglect their studies.
“One of the first and simplest steps is to listen to the child. This is something we have been saying before COVID-19, but during this time when we are affected by COVID-19, it is extremely important to listen to what a child says,” Dr. Ginige said, stressing that parents should not dismiss what a child tells them.
She added that children must know that it is okay not to feel okay during the pandemic. “Sri Lankan parents put education at the very top. This is good, but it should not be at the cost of the mental health of the children,” Dr. Ginige went on to say.