A national survey conducted by a leading pharmaceutical firm and advocate for mental wellness has revealed a significant increase in psychological and emotional stress among South Africans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The results have been made public in October, which is recognised as Mental Health Awareness Month to address the mental health dimension of the pandemic.

More than 1 200 South African adults were polled across the country by Pharma Dynamics to gain an insight into how South Africans have been impacted by the pandemic.

Abdurahman Kenny, Mental Health Portfolio Manager at Pharma Dynamics says many people who previously coped well are now less able to manage due to multiple stressors generated by the pandemic, while those with pre-existing mental health conditions may have experienced a worsening of symptoms.

He says the survey assessed a broad range of psychosocial effects related to the pandemic, which affected a large majority of the population in the following ways:

–       more than half (53%) of respondents either lost their job, had to take a pay-cut or was forced to close a business,
–       56% has higher levels of psychological and emotional distress than before the pandemic,
–       81% turned to unhealthy food, 20% to alcohol, 18% to cigarettes, 6% to smoking Cannabis and 22% to antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication to help them cope with the stressors of the last few months,
–       65% admitted to neglecting their health,
–       52% has trouble sleeping,
–       20% of couples are quarreling more than before, physical spousal abuse has also increased by 5%,
–       68% are worried about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy,
–       44% struggle to relax and,
–       49% feel anxious, 48% frustrated, 31% depressed and a significant, 6%, have contemplated suicide.

To deal with the stress of the pandemic, many have resorted to junk food, alcohol, smoking and other addictive substances, which doesn’t bode well for physical or emotional well-being. Kenny says as the effects of the pandemic take hold on daily life in the coming months, mental health professionals need to be prepared for an increase in substance abuse.

He says the majority of respondents have also had personal experiences with COVID-19 that have exacerbated anxiety levels. The survey found that 6% caught the virus, among 27% a family member was diagnosed with COVID-19 and 50% knew someone who passed away from the Coronavirus.”

Symptoms typically associated with depression and anxiety were also found to be more common among respondents:

–       38% feel tired and complain of low energy levels
–       35% are easily annoyed and irritated
–       33% have trouble concentrating
–       28% feel restless and on edge
–       22% feel a sense of loss
–       19% are lonely
–       14% feel hopeless

Kenny says given the far-reaching emotional and financial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that adequate attention is given to the mental health needs of the population as it could have long-term implications.

“The disruptions in routine and economic activity that the pandemic has caused, has had a devastating impact on mental health. Record high unemployment levels, economic uncertainty – both locally and abroad, having to social distance and isolate ourselves, taking on additional childcare responsibilities (home schooling) while juggling work and the constant fear of contracting the virus are all factors that increase anxiety and stress. We are likely to see much higher rates of mental illness among South Africans post the pandemic and need to increase psychosocial support efforts to avoid a COVID-19 related mental health crisis.

“The fact that nearly half (49%) of respondents wanted to reach out to a therapist for help during the pandemic, but couldn’t due to limited financial resources or access, highlights decades of neglect and underinvestment in mental health services in our country.

“Due to the sheer size of the problem, most mental health needs remain unaddressed and have been hindered by a lack of funds in mental health promotion, prevention and care. Much more needs to be done to protect those facing mounting mental pressure. The psychological well-being of our communities and society at large requires immediate attention,” comments Kenny.

Those who are most at risk include the elderly, frontline health workers, teens, women and those with pre-existing mental health illnesses.

“It’s important that the country builds the human resource capacity to deliver quality mental health and social care in communities,” emphasises Kenny.

“Through policy reform, a proper system can be put in place to ensure the widespread availability of health and psychosocial support services. Secondly, shifting care away from institutions to community services will improve access to care even in remote areas and thirdly, prioritising funds and research towards mental health will be central to successfully navigate the mental health consequences of the pandemic.

“However, it is encouraging to see that 33% have sought comfort from family and friends and made exercise a daily priority in order to fend off negative thoughts. While 40% have stayed home exclusively up until now, 26% are starting to venture out and resume normal societal activities, which is important,” he says.

If you feel weighed-down by the pandemic and don’t know who to turn to, contact Pharma Dynamics’ toll-free helpline on 0800 205 026, which is manned by trained counsellors who are on call from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week. For additional support, visit www.letstalkmh.co.za