The Tribune June 8, 2020
By Stephanie P Hutcheson, Niambi Hall Campbell Dean, and William Fielding
It is recognised by regional and international health organisations that in the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health is an important metric to gauge population health and to direct governmental response and policies. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres spoke in May about the negative impact of COVID-19 on mental health. The World Health Organization has also raised concerns about mental health. They agree that mental health matters and should be prioritised as an “essential part of all government response to COVID-19”.
Since the beginning of this pandemic there has been a rapid review and response in the psychological literature to delineate a course for and impact on mental health associated with COVID-19. It appears there is no segment of the population that is immune to negative consequences associated with the restrictions, limitations, uncertainties and disruptions that have characterised the global experience of COVID-19. In fact, there is a wealth of research from the 2003 SARS epidemic highlighting psychological distress years after the initial incidence of that disease. As the COVID-19 virus is part of the family of SARS-like viruses, there are lessons to be learned which parallel what is being seen around the world and may preview impact.
How has the mental health of citizens and residents in The Bahamas fared?
Researchers at University of The Bahamas are investigating the mental health impact of COVID-19 Drs. Stephanie P. Hutcheson, Niambi Hall Campbell Dean and Mr William Fielding assessed the functioning of Bahamian citizens and residents for the 30-day period inclusive of the Easter 2020 five-day extended lockdown and ending May 29. They used the Distress Questionnaire 5 (DQ5) and Impact of Events Scale-Revised (IES-R) two standard scales to assess stress. Their preliminary findings from a community-based survey of 700 participants on psychological distress using a social media platform are instructive.
The majority of participants were female and on average, participants were between 45-54-years-old. While most participants were from New Providence, there was Family Island representation from Grand Bahama, Abaco, Andros and Eleuthera among others.
The results shows that the ranks of the unemployed increased from 8.5 percent of respondents before the COVID-19 crisis, by an additional 12.9 percent who had been negatively affected financially as a result of the crisis, suggesting a doubling of unemployment associated with the COVID-19 outbreak.
There was an increase in stress. Those who had suffered from loss of or reduced earnings had the higher stress levels. In addition, being female, younger and being a front-line worker in the crisis were important factors influencing the change in stress levels.
Based on these initial findings, the majority of those surveyed demonstrated higher levels of stress during-COVID-19 than pre-COVID-19. While this may be an expected finding, it is clear that policy as well as societal responses to COVID-19 must mitigate against the deleterious effects of stress on overall health and well-being. It is vital to incorporate mental health as a critical metric of health.
The assumption is often made that young people have no bills nor responsibilities, so they should be relatively immune to the effects of stress and worry. One of the more noteworthy findings from the survey was that young people between the ages of 18-24-years-old experienced the highest levels of COVID-19 stress in comparison with the other age groups. While the study does not identify what specifically is causing this, the older individuals who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus demonstrated the lowest levels of stress during the pandemic. This suggests that any anxiety present in both groups related to catching the virus and becoming sick or dying was small in relation to other concerns.
Previous research suggests the adjustment to online schooling for college students, a lack of social outlets and uncertainty about the future may be some of the factors that raised stress in the younger age groups. More specifically, Bahamian youth are not only battling uncertainty about their education, but also economic prospects and the stress of another hurricane season following the disaster of Dorian. These combine to increase the stress of an already uncertain future. Interventions that focus specifically on this demographic should be regarded as an imperative.
And, as we embark upon another hurricane season many in our community may be psychologically triggered by the wind, rain and hurricane warnings but now layered with the stress of COVID-19. These climate realities as well as high rates of unemployment and the seemingly persistent presence of crime and violence, lead to communities that are even more vulnerable to the effects of stress. Interventions that focus on the importance of diet and exercise on one’s physical health for adults are key because physical well-being and mental well-being are inextricably linked, and interventions that specifically address mental health will be of vital importance.
One of the concerns raised in this epidemic is that our healthcare facilities lack the capacity to cope with the potential cases. The reality, however, is that our mental health facilities have long reached their maximum potential, so preventive mental health measures must be viewed with even greater urgency. If our study results are indicative of the wider population, one in four adults is now highly stressed and so in need of mental health help.
Stephanie P. Hutcheson, PhD and Niambi Hall Campbell Dean, PhD are Assistant Professors in the Psychology Department at the University of The Bahamas. Mr. William Fielding is an adjunct faculty member in School of Social Sciences and works in the Office of Institutional, Strengthening, and Accreditation, University of The Bahamas. For more information contact Dr. Hutcheson: Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org.