Mental health and Covid-19: How you’re affected even if you’re not infected

We all know about the physical impact of Covid-19. But what effect does the deadly virus have on our mental health? In this interview, BizNews founder Alec Hogg chats to Dr Seranne Motilal, a clinical wellness specialist at Discovery Vitality, about the negative impacts that living through a pandemic can have on us and those around us. – Jarryd Neves

The physical damage from Covid-19 is well-documented. But, what is it doing to our mental health?

Dr Seranne Motilal is with us. She’s a clinical wellness specialist at Vitality. We’ve had a chat before, Seranne, about mental health and maybe just in the wake of that, we got quite a lot of interesting feedback. I’m wondering whether mental health is now starting to enter the mainstream, given the challenges that we’re seeing in Covid-19.

Yes, definitely. I think that initially – especially in the first waves of the pandemic – we were seeing a lot of the physical side. Symptoms and prognosis were a focus, and treatment diagnosis. Those things are still very important. But what we’re encountering a lot more now is anxiety, stigma, dealing with grief, loss and depression. Unfortunately, all of these factors are sort of coming together at the same point. At the moment, mental health is very topical. A lot of people are talking about it or experiencing some mental health fallout, whether themselves or with friends or family. I think it’s just a crucial point to have support available to more people.

Covid-19 has seen many lose their jobs, a devastation that affects mental health

It’s extraordinary. If you think of the numbers of people who are going to lose their jobs or already have. The research tells us it’s three million people in a country of South Africa’s size with high unemployment already. It’s going to put a lot of people under additional pressure from a mental health perspective as well.

Yes, it’s devastating. I think talking about this topic – early on is one thing that I’d like to maybe say is a disclaimer – job loss has a lot of financial fallout, has a lot of external factors that are associated to it. I guess I’m going to talk a little bit more about the mental health aspects of that. But that’s not to diminish that those financial burdens and obligations that sit on us are still there, still real and very present. I think in facing job losses and, as you mentioned – we’re already a country that has high unemployment rates – and now to see this sort of double whammy of the Covid-19 effect really is devastating and I think that’s linked beyond just losing your job.

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Your job can offer a structure, a social outlet. It can maybe add a little bit of purpose and meaning to life. Losing those aspects can have quite an effect on people. People might start questioning their identities. You’ve experienced a bit of grief or loss. There’s heightened levels of anxiety, thinking about what the future might hold. All of this comes together and can create quite a difficult situation to go through, even in the mental health side of things.

The one thing that I’d really like to stress, though, is that this trigger and job losses in this economic stress can really compound us to start to have physical and mental health symptoms, whether those are linked to anxiety, depression or stress. It’s really important to be cognisant and aware of them and to seek extra help when needed. If your sleep is being affected, if your mood is being affected, if your social connections are being affected. Talk about and reach out to people around you. Reach out to support structures. It’s really important, because that compounding effect can really have an effect on you. As you go into this period and begin job searching, you want to be in a good space mentally, as well as physically.

“Your job can offer a structure, a social outlet. It can maybe add a little bit of purpose and meaning to life. Losing those aspects can have quite an effect on people.”

Limited funds, mobility makes finding mental healthcare more difficult than ever

Have you got anything at Vitality that helps people? I’m just thinking now. You’ve got three million people losing their jobs, according to the research. Many of them single black woman. Where are they going to get their wherewithal with no job and a household to look after, to find a professional? A psychologist or psychiatrist? Presumably, that will be pretty tough for them.

That’s a great question. The one thing that I’d like to start with is the Vitality mental well-being online offering that we have at the moment. It’s completely accessible to everyone. There’s a lot of resources that offer psychoeducation. So learning more about these topics – depression, anxiety, stress, resilience – but also have a lot of tools and skills. So there’s meditative prodive, there’s guided breathing, there’s yoga. There’s a lot of activities that you can do that have shown to have a good impact on mental well-being. Just to add to some of the stress and things that we’re going through, it’s really important that especially in the immediate outset of a job loss – whether it’s yourself or a friend or family member – that there are a lot of difficult emotions that someone can experience. Those are normal and to be expected.

It’s important to cut ourselves slack, understand that, go through that and feel those things. But then when we can, to try and focus on the things that we can control, maintaining a routine, trying to exercise, eating healthily, trying to make sure we keep a sleep routine.

Avoiding alcohol, substances and things that might affect the way we feel and act. Part of that is, you know, as I said, exercising when we can, maybe reading when we can, someone more qualified will talk about how do you prepare your CV? How do you prepare for the job search in a Covid-19 world?

But trying to focus on those things that are within our control because there’s a lot of stuff that’s really not in our control at the moment. The last thing that maybe I can chat about a little bit – and this is specifically for Vitality members – but doing your mental well-being assessments can be a first step in just trying to understand a little bit more of what we’re going through at the time, what we’re experiencing and also learning about mental health aspects, conditions and things that you can do to actually get more help and get more support.

“It’s important to cut ourselves slack.”

First step on path to good mental health is to understand it

Are those assessments able to give you a score? I’ll tell you why; I went to a doctor today and one of the questions she asked me was, “on a scale of nought to ten, where would you put your stress levels?” I wasn’t too sure. But is there any way of quantifying that kind of thing?

Yes. So what we do is we use clinically validated assessments. So these assessments, ask a range of questions, and they’ve been shown to be highly correlated to diagnoses of depression, anxiety, or to give you an indication of your resilience levels, your stress levels and whether your sleep is adequate. Things like that. So we use these validated studies and tools and offer them to members so you can actually go through them. Each question might actually trigger something in you that you haven’t really thought about before. But in combination, those questions add up to actually give you a good or decent indication of what you’re going through at the moment.

It’s hard to take an individual question, like “what is your stress level at the moment?” Sometimes it’s nice to break it down, go through it in different levels. You know, stress can be insidious, right? It can affect different parts of your life that you might not even realise.

Backache, headaches or disturbances in sleep patterns all might be related to sleep and you might not put that together. Stress, obviously, a lot of the time doesn’t just present. It’s just kind of simmers, and you don’t actually realise that these increasing levels are sitting on your shoulders a lot of the time. So that’s why doing these assessments can really help. It gives you that insight, can help trigger your thought and give you just more knowledge on what maybe you’re experiencing at this moment.

Take note of warning signs

So there is help and it’s a good idea at any point in time. But, when does it become compulsory? In other words, when would you know that you’re in trouble? What are the warning signs?

That’s a great thing to talk about. So it’s a complicated question because each of us has a different normal. I think just as a very base, it’s the change in the way that you feel and act. This could be a change in the function at home or with relationships or with your mood. If you start to just feel not motivated, if your sleep is changing. If your appetite is changing. If you’re feeling helpless or hopeless. If you’ve had this constant sort of low-mood or high-worry levels, high-anxiety levels, can’t seem to be still or you’re constantly thinking of different things.

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All of these little elements add up and they’re really important to be aware of and to be cognisant of and then to speak to people and get help. Whether that’s a family member who can speak to a medical professional or whether it’s your GP, psychologist or psychiatrist, the resources are there. SADAC (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) is a great organisation which offers a call centre that’s 24 hours and you can phone and try and get that help, as well as being confidential.

I just think that the most important thing is if you starting to not feel yourself, if you starting to feel like you can’t really shake it, if you’re starting to notice a change in behaviour that’s significant with friends or family members. That’s really the early warning signs. That’s where I would highly recommend getting extra help, seeking medical advice. It can be really beneficial.

So if you’re snappy, if you’re grumpy, if you’re not feeling centred and balanced, it’s not your fault always. We’re going through an incredibly stressful time at the moment. If you’re a Discovery or Vitality member, hop on the site and go and do the assessment and that’ll probably get you going in the right direction.

Definitely, and just to encourage people to come out, talk about it, get that help, because really it exists and it can help you get through a difficult period if you’re experiencing it.