A few weeks back the word ‘coronavirus’ was banned in our house. We stopped watching the news on T.V completely and sought alternative news sources such as social media. You see, we realised that the pandemic had been affecting my younger brother’s mental health. One time we noticed that he was completely dazed, and when we asked what was wrong, he said, “We’re all going to die.” Luckily he is now doing much better.
Among the side effects that we are anticipating from the Coronavirus pandemic is mental health issues. It, therefore, came as a shock to me when I learnt that the last time Kenya implemented anything in its mental health policy was in the year 1989 when the Kenyan Mental Health Act was published.
In April 2020 however, the Ministry of Health released a Comprehensive Guide on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support during the COVID-19 Pandemic. The document contains guidelines that cover 5 unique considerations for mental health; the needs of the population, people on treatment for COVID -19, those in quarantine and isolation, people with mental health conditions requiring continuing care in these settings and health workers.
- Guidelines for the population/ worried well
This segment acknowledges that stress is a normal response in this abnormal situation.
It speaks about the signs of stress that include: Being easily distracted, trouble with concentration, trouble remembering, increase or decrease of energy, body tension, and anxiety, sweating, being easily startled, headaches, changes in appetite, difficulty sleeping, trouble relaxing, feeling irritable, trouble completing tasks, blaming others and getting into arguments.
It also talks about how to cope with stress. It encourages creativity in maintaining connections with others. This includes talking to our loved ones, seeking support from them, talking and writing our experiences on social media, reducing exposure to the news before sleep and learning to relax our body and mind.
This section also warns against unhelpful coping mechanisms for dealing with stress such as drug abuse and co-ruminating (worrying out-loud with others) and generally impulsive or high-risk behaviour that reduces stress in the short-term only.
To deal with stress, one should eat healthily, engage in exercise and refocus attention on activities that are aligned with their values.
- Guidelines for the persons in quarantine/isolation
Someone on Twitter said that the one thing Coronavirus has taught them is that prison life is hard. This was coming from someone who was at home following the social distancing directive from the government. Now imagine the ones who are actually in isolation or quarantine? I can only imagine what they’re going through.
This section is about such persons who have been isolated having tested positive for the virus os shown symptoms of the virus. Those affected by quarantine, regardless of their health status, are likely to report distress due to fear and risk perceptions. These people are likely to be stressed about their health status and the health status of others whom they may have exposed to the disease. They may also be stressed about the resentment that their friends and family may feel if they need to go into quarantine as a result of contact with them.
Aside from this, the uncertainty of the situation, loneliness and anger (if they think they were exposed to the disease because of others’ negligence) is likely to make them stressed. The document discusses how to support someone in quarantine/isolation facilities by encouraging them throughout the process. The most frequent immediate mental health conditions in survivors are depression episodes and transient acute stress reactions.
Patients who exhibit these signs are to be referred to a mental health specialist.
- Guidelines for healthcare workers
Healthcare workers are the frontline soldiers of this war against the pandemic and are highly likely to be mentally affected. The Ministry of Health has advised that they get sufficient rest, eat healthily, engage in physical activity, stay in contact with family and friends and avoid unhelpful coping strategies such as the abuse of drugs.
Aside from this healthcare workers may be stigmatized by family members and other groups of people. This necessitates the need for these healthcare workers to stay connected to their loved ones digitally for social support.
The main sources of stress for healthcare workers are witnessing human suffering, risk of getting COVID infection, intense workloads and Life-and-death decisions.
It is necessary therefore to get support from colleagues, family and friends. On top of this, journaling, monitoring each other and maintaining a healthy diet goes a long way in making this process easier.
How To Reduce Stigma
- Not attaching COVID-19 to a tribe, political grouping, age, race or socioeconomic status.
- Acknowledging people affected by COVID-19 have not done anything wrong and deserve our support and kindness.
- Referring to persons diagnosed with COVID-19 as people who are being treated for COVID-19 or people who are recovering from COVID-19 instead of “COVID-19 cases” or COVID-19 victims” or covid19 families”.
- Being ready to welcome persons who have recovered from COVID-19 back into the community without discrimination.