Long Journey Of COVID-19 And Its Impact On Physical And Mental Health

Our brains have been reshaped by the individual and collective experiences of the pandemic.

Three years after the outbreak, COVID-19, in all its manifested forms, is far from over. Building the right support system is the only way out for better mental and physical health.

Who can forget the dreaded March of 2020? Three years ago, Coronavirus (COVID-19), an infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, spread like rapid fire and brought the world to its knees. The pandemic inflicted massive economic and health costs, millions of lives were lost and life, as we knew it, has never been the same again. If that wasn’t destructive enough, many who defeated the virus would continue to suffer its debilitating long-term effects. Three years on, and we are still grappling with COVID-19’s outcomes mentally and physically.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global research organisation with the University of Washington, has been monitoring this pandemic closely. Of 11 diseases to watch in 2023, the organisation points to two very poignant conditions long COVID and mental disorders both of which are widespread and yet, they are not very well understood. Illnesses to environmental conditions and economic factors, these illnesses are difficult to diagnose and challenging to treat.

After the after-effects

Over the years, we’ve seen how COVID-19 impacts various organs in different ways for different people. However, for some, despite testing negative, the impact has been shown to last for weeks, stretching into months. Post-COVID conditions headache, memory loss, brain fog, confusion, chest ailment and lingering cough are a ‘silent’ or ‘residual’ pandemic with far more lasting effects than the original disease itself. Termed ‘Long COVID‘, it has been proven to disrupt a person’s ability to engage with school, work or relationships. While more research is required to find effective treatments and preventive measures for this silent pandemic, for now, it has been known that people with Long COVID need diagnostic and basic rehabilitation support from primary care physicians and mental health professionals alike.

No health without mental health

While depression and anxiety have been recorded as defining markers of our times long before the pandemic, the uncertainty and the isolation triggered by COVID only made matters worse. Our brains have been reshaped by the individual and collective experiences of the pandemic that include the stresses of battling the virus, losing loved ones, and maybe livelihoods. The new normal virtual work, virtual schools and virtual family along with the health implications of COVID-19 fueled short and long-term stresses including anxiety, depression, cognitive and attention deficits (brain fog), psychosis, and in extreme cases, suicidal behaviour. This is a new global crisis for mental health that we didn’t anticipate.

25% spike in depression, anxiety

Speaking of anxiety levels, one can notice how they have increased dramatically. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression and anxiety spiked 25 per cent in the first year of the pandemic (2020). This number has only been increasing. In fact, even The National Institute of Mental Health’s data suggested that people are more likely to develop mental illnesses or disorders in the months following infection, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What’s worrisome is that despite widespread reports of depression, anxiety and suicides, access to mental health crisis support remains feeble.

Preserving people’s dignity

Mental health is an integral part of our general health and well-being and a basic human right. It is not defined by the presence or absence of a mental disorder. It is not a binary state: we are not either mentally healthy or mentally ill. Rather, mental health exists on a complex continuum with experiences ranging from an optimal state of well-being to debilitating states of great suffering and emotional pain. Mental health must be integrated into primary health care, only then can we reduce suffering, preserve people’s dignity and advance the development of our societies.

The way forward

COVID-19 and its impact can indeed be overwhelming the only way out is to reach out to a mental health care professional, get advice and guidance and together, work on a plan to manage or reduce the symptoms. The WHO has called for more action on addressing mental health issues worldwide. Mental health professionals will play an important role in educating people about the symptoms to watch out for and encouraging them to seek help. Community-based interventions, such as support groups and outreach programs, can also be effective.

(This article is authored by Dr Navya Saluja, Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Officer In-Charge at Sukoon Health)

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