How is Covid-19 impacting on Mental Health

For several months now, people around the globe have had to cope with an unprecedented attack on their health, wellbeing, and economy. This has put up further barriers to people already suffering from mental disorders ranging from anxiety through depression to substance use. It is also creating mental issues in the general population on a scale never recorded before. Coronavirus is an invisible enemy that studies show has negatively affected the mental wellbeing of up to half the US population. [1] As the pandemic and control methods are likely to exist for some time to come, these statistics can only get worse, putting a huge burden on mental care practitioners who will have to remain innovative in supporting and treating their clients.

The mental impact of Covid-19 or Coronavirus falls mainly into two categories. Dealing with the illness itself and the fear of contracting it as well as dealing with the measures put in place to try and mitigate its spread. Issues being experienced include: [2], [3]

  • Fear about personal health
  • Worry and fear about the health of loved ones
  • Dealing with the loss of family and friends
  • Financial distress caused by job losses, reduced business opportunities or business closures
  • Isolation and loneliness caused by vulnerable groups having to shield, schools, support services, places of work and entertainment venues closing as well as the inability to see and connect with friends and family because of the lockdown restrictions
  • Fear of what the future may bring

In turn, these issues lead to a whole raft of symptoms that can be experienced to a greater or lesser extent. Among these are:

  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns leading to putting on or losing too much weight
  • Difficulty in concentrating and focusing
  • Generalized or more specific anxieties
  • The onset of depression
  • The onset of phobia such as agoraphobia
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Worsening of existing health problems
  • Worsening of existing mental issues such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
  • Increased use of tobacco, alcohol or other substances
  • The onset of PTSD after surviving Coronavirus

How to cope with pandemic stress

Professional practitioners can offer advice to help clients cope with the Coronavirus pandemic as well as offering more specialized treatment options such as Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET). They can encourage people to keep up-to-date with the latest facts using trusted sources rather than social media and ensure they know where to turn to if they need specific medical or financial help. It is important that even if focused on taking care of someone else, their clients can only stay strong and healthy by also taking care of themselves. While social media can be damaging if it gives false information or spreads dangerous rumors, it can be an invaluable tool for connecting with other people and lessening the impact of isolation.

Learning relaxation tools such as yoga and meditation or spending a few minutes taking some deep breaths are effective coping mechanisms. Eating healthily and getting enough sleep is vital as is trying to avoid the temptation of drinking and smoking too much. Studies by the World Health Organization [4] show that smoking is clearly implicated in hospitalization with and death from Coronavirus. If, however, Coronavirus-related anxieties, eating disorders, addictions, stresses, and phobias become too much to deal with at home, then VRET is proving to be a vital piece of kit in the therapist’s toolbox.

The use of VRET in dealing with anxieties and other disorders

Studies referenced by reliable sources such as the NCBI show that the use of VRET is ‘highly effective in treating phobias when compared with active or inactive controls and was slightly but significantly more effective than in vivo exposure.’ [5] At PSY C2Care our health professionals have been successfully using this virtual therapy for some time and are now applying it to mental issues such as anxiety and hygiene phobias created by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Once the preserve of military training and then a popular part of the virtual gaming world, VR has become a cutting-edge tool that lets clients become exposed in a safe and controlled way to the stimuli that provoke their anxieties. VRET works on similar principles to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Anxieties and phobias lead people to avoid the situations that cause them, eventually limiting their lifestyle. With this therapy, they are gradually exposed to these fear-provoking situations in slow, safe, and controlled ways until they can function normally and enjoy life once again.

Social distancing and isolation whether self or government-imposed can lead to agoraphobia, the fear of leaving the home or being in situations, such as public transport or shops, where they feel fearful. This can have a devastating impact on life. With our application of VRET, the patient is progressively exposed to places that trigger their anxieties. During the sessions, the therapist is totally in control and can increase or decrease the virtual exposure according to the patient’s responses. This immediate feedback in a safe, controlled environment is proving to be an invaluable tool.

Being severely ill or having to spend time in intensive care units is leading to the later onset of PTSD in recovered Coronavirus patients. With VRET patients can safely re-engage with the incidents that triggered their traumatic response. C2Care uses this virtual therapy to recreate the trauma of the intensive care unit allowing clients to visualize it and deal with it in context, gradually removing the vivid and debilitating memories and flashbacks left by their illness.

As the world reemerges from the pandemic and both individuals and societies adjust to a new ‘normal’, effective and targeted mental support and care are going to be more important than ever. At PSY C2Care we can help provide it.

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