The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic caused a mental health crisis as it swept through China and governments elsewhere must prepare to address similar problems at it strikes them, researchers have warned.
Fear caused by the new germ’s deadliness, a strict quarantine, mistrust of officials who mishandled the outbreak and a wave of social media misinformation all took their toll on mental health.
During the outbreak, “generalised fear and fear-induced overreactive behaviour were common among the public”, while depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder all emerged.
The result was “a heightened public mental health crisis”, according to a paper in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the US government’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The research was published as a new survey showed two-thirds of Britons were struggling to stay positive about the future in the face of the epidemic.
“As the virus spreads globally, governments must address public mental health needs by developing and implementing well-coordinated strategic plans to meet these needs during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the authors.
The origin of the coronavirus is believed to have been a “wet market” in the Chinese city of Wuhan which sold both dead and live animals including fish and birds. The first cases were reported at the end of 2019.
The researchers, from the Rand corporation think tank, said several unique characteristics of the outbreak and how it was handled led to the mental health crisis.
Firstly many Chinese people still remembered the SARS outbreak and the effect it had on daily life and the economy. Covid-19 is more infectious than SARS and more deadly than normal flu.
The uncertain incubation period and doubt over whether those without symptoms could still spread it added to anxiety. The Chinese government’s initial downplaying of the outbreak’s severity then eroded trust in its response.
Meanwhile the large-scale quarantine measures in major cities, which confined residents to their homes, added to mental pressure.
Reports of shortages of medical protective supplies, medical staff, and hospital beds in Wuhan also caused enormous concern.
The researchers said that lastly information overload through social media, including misinformation, “posed a major risk to public mental health during this health crisis”.
China recognised the need to support people’s mental health during the crisis, but the researchers said efforts had probably been dented by a severe lack of specialist staff.
Meanwhile, an Ipsos-MORI poll found 62 per cent of Britons surveyed said they found it harder to stay positive about the future since the outbreak, while 55 per cent found it harder to stay positive day-to-day. The gloomy outlook was most pronounced in younger generations and women.
Kelly Beaver, managing director of Ipsos MORI public affairs, said: “In the last fortnight we have all been thrown into an unfamiliar and daunting world. Therefore, it isn’t entirely surprising that two thirds of Britons are reporting that it is harder to stay positive about the future and over half of us find it a struggle to stay positive day-to-day.”
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