The situation calls for policy research on psychological impairments
The omicron variant of the corona virus forced many countries and regions to order lockdowns to curb the spread of the disease. There is a wider realisation now, however, that lockdowns have a significant impact on the psychological well being of people.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had substantial psychological impact on the people globally. Research on the psychological well-being of the most exposed groups – including children, college students and health workers – has shown that they are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and distress. Social distancing and protective measures have affected relationships among people and their perception of empathy.
A pandemic causes a prolonged exposure to stress and the inability to manage traumatic and negative emotions. As a consequence there is an increased interest in measuring social and community uneasiness.
The protective measures adopted in managing the pandemic have had varied consequences on individuals. Some segments of the population are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic ailments because they are more prone to psychological vulnerability.
Constant fear affects daily life and leads to social isolation, modifying human relations. To varying degrees, some elements related to the pandemic affect the entire population. These include separation from loved ones, loss of certain freedoms, uncertainty about the advancement of the disease and a feeling of helplessness. A careful evaluation of the potential benefits of quarantine/ lockdowns is needed therefore on account of the high psychological costs.
Healthcare workers are a segment of the population particularly affected by stress. They are at risk to develop symptoms common in catastrophic situations. These include post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout syndrome, physical and emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and dissociation.
A study on mental health and its association with perceived social support during the pandemic in Pakistan found that among medical graduates belonging to Islamabad 38.8 percent suffered from depression, anxiety and stress. Doctors with high social support were less depressed, stressed and showed less anxiety than those who had low social support.
Tele-psychology and technological devices have important roles in decreasing the negative effects of the pandemic. These tools could improve the treatment of some patients.
To mitigate the anxiety and depression symptoms widespread among the population, the Ministry of Planning, Development, and Special Initiatives launched the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) unit as part of its emergency response to Covid-19. The unit is funded by UNICEF Pakistan. The objective of the initiative is to raise public awareness; identify and manage stress-related conditions; and provide mental health support to those suffering from a mental health disorder.
Data from 2020 showed that approximately 50 million people were suffering from common mental disorders in Pakistan. There were only 400 trained psychologists working in the country. We therefore have one of the lowest mental illness patient-to-doctor ratios in the world.
There is a need to focus on the assessment of the psychological effects of the pandemic on the population, particularly children, college students and health professionals. There is a need also for identification of new perspectives in intervention based on digital devices and in line with mental health advances. Telepsychology, for instance, is a valid tool, effective in taking charge of the psychological suffering caused by the pandemic and in preventing the chronicity of the disease.
From this perspective, tele-psychology and tech devices assume important roles to decrease the negative effects of the pandemic. These tools can improve access to treatment through the possibility to meet from home or the workplace and maintaining the relationship between therapists and patients.
Technological development in mental health predicts future trends that include “smart” mobile devices, cloud computing, virtual worlds, virtual reality and electronic games in addition to the traditional psychotherapy tools. It is important to help future generations of psychologists and patients to collaborate in the potential growth areas, through education and training on the benefits and effectiveness of telepsychology.
Greater awareness of the potential of online services is needed. Online psychological services should be integrated with the various territorial services to provide the patients with local references about their specific health and economic needs.
One of the goals for public as well as private psychological organisations and authorities should be the promotion of specific training for psychologists and psychotherapists to develop the basic skills in managing the effects of a pandemic and emergencies. They should also be able to sensitise patients to the online therapeutic relationship, providing main rules and benefits of the process.
A significant example would be the provision of PhDs and diplomas in tele-psychology to train future psychologists in managing the psychological effects of the pandemic through an online psychology service. Online psychological services avoid geographical barriers and can become a useful tool in addition to traditional psychotherapy.
The pandemic situation calls for policy research on psychological impairments and their consequences. It is suggested that primary prevention is to study the impact of the pandemic on an at-risk population to reduce symptoms related to stress and provide specific online target-centred psychological counselling.
The secondary prevention is overcoming the limitations of human interaction based on digital devices, developing new spaces of inter-and intra-social communication and new tools of support and psychological treatment, reproducing the multi-sensory experience of a face-to-face interaction. Training the next generation of psychotherapists in managing online devices and in implementing their adaptive and personal skills is also important. Lastly, it is necessary to sensitise the general population to tele-psychology and its advantages.
The writer is a researcher associated with the Centre for Private Sector Engagement at Sustainable Development Policy Institute