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Post COVID-19 World: Long-term impact on mental health and well-being of humanity

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Dr M Karthikeyan, Consultant, Psychiatry, Meenakshi Mission Hospital and Research Centre, Madurai opines on the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on minds of people and how healthcare institutions and community-based interventions focussed on crisis intervention, suicide prevention and de-addiction are paramount in this critical hour and a lot more essential in the not-so-distant future

We as human beings are staring into the crystal ball of the future and wondering how this hitherto unexpected and never before experienced pandemic of COVID-19 will influence our psychological and physical well-being and what scars it will leave and the lessons we will learn.

Events with global impacts without prior precedents are definitely hard to predict and naturally estimating the exact outcomes of this pandemic is a conundrum by itself and all an informed mind can do is to hazard a projected guesstimate of what will most probably happen and how humanity as a species should be prepared for facing the after effects of this gargantuan crisis.

Although the outcomes of this pandemic are still hazy and tough to predict and even the time when it will end is a dilemma in the minds of every public health expert as the available data is limited and so we can’t forecast any accurate timeline for the end this marauding pandemic. But for any healthcare provider – from an individual to an institution to the entire nation, it is better to be ready and prepared to anticipate and manage psychological and healthcare issues that might occur in the post COVID-19 world and being prepared is half the battle won in empowering people to recover from the deleterious effects of this pandemic.

This COVID-19 has threatened the very existence of every individual and of large swathes of populations across countries and continents throughout the world and it is bound to leave thousands and thousands of family members and friends and relatives grieving. Hence, the first and foremost issue for healthcare providers and government must be the provision of grief counselling services and emotional support to the bereaved individuals and providing livelihoods and hope for those left behind.

The COVID-19 emotional experiences are bound to leave an indelible scar on the minds of millions of fellow human beings which might radically change their attitudes to illness and healthcare seeking behaviour. The worried may well begin to interpret every sign and symptom that their bodies may be displaying as a serious illness and may tend to attribute this to some catastrophic cause. Health anxiety in the normal population and illness anxiety in the extremely worried ones is bound to increase dramatically and healthcare services must be trained and equipped to handle such health and illness anxiety related concerns.

But at the same time, we can’t waive away all such anxieties and symptoms as exaggerations of the worried and doctors must develop clinical acumen and design clinical protocols to provide access to appropriate investigations and specialist services. While health related anxieties and preoccupation with illnesses such as hypochondria could overwhelm our populations, mood disorders like depression due to job losses, economic losses, grief and bereavement are bound to increase in leaps and bounds and the risks of suicide and using substances such as alcohol for self-medication will peak in the near future if not now. Provision of specialist psychiatric services in healthcare institutions and community-based interventions focussed on crisis intervention, suicide prevention and de-addiction are of paramount importance in this critical hour and a lot more essential in the not-so-distant future.

While the psychological health impact can be particularly devastating if left unchecked and this could be mitigated significantly by the provision of quality psychiatric care and by creating and broadening avenues of and access to mental healthcare, the hard-learnt lessons from this social pandemic can be summed up as follows-

  • The priority for rigorous personal hygiene,
  • The need for self-discipline in complying with public healthcare initiatives
  • Avoidance of high risk behaviours like substance abuse
  • Treatment adherence to chronic medical illnesses like diabetes mellitus and lung diseases and cardiovascular illness

And the fundamental and most essential need of

  • Promotion of scientifically proven exercises and methods to promote positive health of the mind and body

We have to be aware and be prepared that such global pandemics may recur if not regularly but definitely frequently and so the governments of nations all around the world must pledge themselves to a persisting and persevering commitment for a substantial enhancement of healthcare budgets multiple times and creation of a backup support base of equipment ranging from personal protection gear to testing facilities, vaccines, pharmaceutical initiatives and even highly trained public healthcare professionals and intensivist and infectious disease experts across the globe. Creation of such dedicated infrastructure and having a much higher level of preparedness will reassure and provide hope to entire humanity.

We need to be prepared and yet not panic. We need to overcome this pandemic with least possible losses and rebuild our lives together by adhering to the lessons learnt from this crisis and be resilient in facing future threats. We need to keep walking together and united in our endeavour to make this world a happier and healthier place in the future.

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