Contagion in our mind


NEARLY two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sees another emergency that needs attention—mental health.

Many people around the world have reported feelings of anxiety, depression, worries and other sad states of mental issues that arose as early as the onset of the pandemic itself. Fear of contracting the virus obviously topped the list, security and safety, drastic reduction in mobility, hospitals that won’t accept non-Covid patients, employment (many lost their jobs since businesses closed shop), livelihood, lack of contact with family or even going out with friends and many others.

What is mental health, and why is it so important?

Mental health, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), is a state of well-being where a person is able to cope with the regular stresses of work and home life and is able to make a contribution.

Mental health conditions—which include depression, anxiety, substance use disorders (including alcohol) and psychoses—can be highly disabling, affecting people’s functionality and capacity to live fulfilling lives. These conditions are also associated with increased mortality. WHO figures report that worldwide, 800,000 people die from suicide every year.

According to Prof. (Adj) Dato’ Dr. Andrew Mohanraj Chandrasekaran, president of the Malaysian Mental Health Association and a member of the board of directors of the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH), the new normal—once the pandemic goes into the endemic stage—will not be the same as the old normal, where issues about mental health were relegated in the background.

Dr. Chandrasekaran: “As we approach this new normal, we will, for a long time, still be grappling with the same mental health issues. That’s not going away, and
therefore would necessitate for us to continue the conversation…. What appears to be settling down can actually be a lull period where we don’t see things very obviously.”

“As we approach this new normal, we will, for a long time, still be grappling with the same mental health issues; that’s not going away, and therefore would necessitate for us to continue the conversation, “ he said. “This is for the simple reason that we know what appears to be settling down can actually be a lull period where we don’t see things very obviously but there are certain psychological and psychiatric conditions that will become more prominent with its symptoms much later.”

Anxious of new normal

WHILE the prospect that life is slowly going back to normal—like going back to school—may seem exciting, Chandrasekaran observes some kids are still a bit anxious with the prospect. This means that they will have to start getting used to public transport. The adults who have been working from home have already adapted to the setup and fears of the virus being in the workplace also bring anxiety.

“These will surely go on for quite a while, but this may be an opportune time to put in a sustainable intervention to address long-term issues,” Chandrasekaran  added.

With regard to long-term effects of the pandemic and how people can “re-socialize” and the difficulties they may encounter, Bawani Rajendran, a clinical psychologist with MSF Malaysia, said that after more than a year of the lockdown, many would have already dealt with the losses and stresses in terms of relationships, financial hardships, businesses going down.

Comparing this to research on effects of natural disasters, which can serve as a guide, she estimated that around 10 percent of people will develop severe psychological problems such as mood or anxiety disorders or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“But it could be much higher because unlike the other pandemics, this one affected almost everyone; even those who didn’t get sick but know someone who did will also be affected. With the prolonged lockdowns, the pandemic would probably exacerbate pre-existing conditions or may initiate a mental health condition,” she said.

Investments down the drain

NAZ RAHMAN, a TV host, emcee, actor, media trainer and family man from Malaysia, shared how his stature, his accomplishments both as a celebrity and entrepreneur, were all gone in a flash due to the pandemic. He recalled how his investment in a start-up firm where he had grand plans, his savings of 20 years which he put into the business, were all wiped out.

“I was going through depression but I didn’t know it. From being a truly positive person, I was feeling too negative. When my son showed a planetary system that he made and was proud of, I told him to shut up. That was a revelation to me, that something was wrong; I was letting my family, my children down, and it should not stay that way,” he said.

He realized that while he may have lost what he built for the last 20 years, he also risked losing what he already has, which to him is more precious than anything in this world. He apologized to his family.

“I’ve accepted that this is the way it is. But one thing I know, if you want to get out of this funk, you should never be alone; you got to have a support group. If there’s none, don’t be afraid to seek help. That’s what I did, and we were never better.”

Baby steps

LYKA LUCERNA from the Philippines—a licensed social worker and certified specialist in women and children protection and also a book author—said that though the Philippines is struggling, the country is taking baby steps. But anxiety levels among many Filipinos rose with the thought and the main concern of infecting their loved ones.  Always they are consumed with the fear that they might pass on the disease to them.

Filipinos also faced social issues like stigma, discrimination, and economic concerns like losing their jobs and not having money to support their families, especially among urban poor communities.

As a mental health and psychosocial provider from MSF, she provided support to a community in Tondo, Manila, by listening to people’s thoughts and feelings, and normalizing their fears and anxieties. She highlighted their strengths so they can be reminded of their individual capacities to get through this pandemic.

“It may not be easy, but we need to find our coping strategies. So, I equipped the community with a few more positive coping strategies such as relaxation techniques or breathing exercises. We also linked them with other people in the community who can help them with their socio-economic concerns.”

Doing what she wanted

DINA NADZIR, a singer, actress, entrepreneur and radio host from Malaysia, admitted to being too lazy to think or do anything, she did what she wanted to do—go on air, eat and sleep whenever she wants—but eventually realized it was unhealthy for her. She put on so much weight and felt bad about herself.

“I felt being static, not looking at achieving something. I still have work, but I don’t feel too proud about myself. It pained me seeing bad things happening to my friends. Work was still the same, but it was my personal being that was not,” she said.

Bawani said what happened to Dina can be an example of “fight, flight or freeze.” Some may run away (take flight or engage in an avoidant behavior), or fight (become hyperactive), or freeze.

“The impact may vary from person to person. These are some of the signs not necessarily [going] into depression or anxiety, but mental health is slowly deteriorating. When these happen, better to talk to someone you can trust or better yet, seek professional help.”

Sound advice. And one worth heeding.

Images courtesy of Warunporn Thangthongtip | and

Read full article on BusinessMirror

Leave a Reply