Lessons learned from natural disasters and the military can help guide our responses to help people’s mental health during the covid-19 pandemic
22 April 2020
THERE are still many unknowns about how this pandemic will play out. The immediate concern is rightly how to save lives. But another important question is the effect on the world’s long-term mental health.
The future here is unclear and an ongoing global research effort to monitor and understand the mental toll is needed. Psychologists are already tooling up to find answers.
In the meantime, one useful way to break down the problem is to examine the impacts on four groups, as we write in our special report. These are the general population, families and children, vulnerable people and front-line workers. Past experiences of national trauma can be our guide and allow us to draw several ideas.
First, the good news: many of the potential negative consequences to our mental health can be avoided if we take good and timely action.
Past experience also suggests that some groups will be hit harder. Existing mental health inequalities within society will widen, compounded by the financial insecurity brought on by the pandemic, which, as we saw after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, can exacerbate mental health issues.
Those with pre-existing mental health problems are particularly vulnerable at a time when they are unlikely to have access to their normal means of support. For them, advice isn’t enough – they must have access to professional psychological help, and we need more ways to deliver this remotely.
Experience within the military can offer useful coping strategies for front-line healthcare workers. Team leaders must be primed to identify signs among staff that normal levels of distress are turning into something more serious. Simple actions, such as a short conversation during times of acute stress, can improve long-term mental health outcomes.
As we have already learned with the threat of this virus to our physical health, we can’t wait to have all the answers before we take action to identify and protect those most at risk. Doing so now will help mitigate the impact today, and for decades to come.
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