Home News Covid-19 has had a “devastating impact” on mental health in SA

Covid-19 has had a “devastating impact” on mental health in SA


Results of a survey have shown that 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.

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A NATIONAL survey has revealed a significant increase in psychological and emotional stress among South Africans as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The results of the survey were released 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 a national pharmaceutical group, 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, said the results showed that many people who previously coped well were 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.

Kenny said the survey assessed a broad range of psychosocial effects related to the pandemic, which affected a large majority of the population in a number of ways.

More than half (53%) of respondents either lost their job, had to take a pay cut or were forced to close a business; 56% had 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% had trouble sleeping; 20% of couples were quarrelling more than before, while physical spousal abuse also increased by 5%; 68% were worried about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy; 44% struggled to relax; and 49% felt anxious, 48% frustrated, 31% depressed and 6% contemplated suicide.

“To deal with the stress of the pandemic, many resorted to junk food, alcohol, smoking and other addictive substances, which doesn’t bode well for their physical or emotional well-being,” Kenny said. He warned that mental health professionals needed to be prepared for an increase in substance abuse.

“The majority of respondents also had personal experiences with Covid-19 that exacerbated their anxiety levels. The survey found that 6% caught the virus, 27% of the respondents had a family member who was diagnosed with Covid-19 and 50% knew someone who died from the coronavirus.”

Symptoms typically associated with depression and anxiety were also found to be more common among respondents: 38% felt tired and complained of low energy levels; 35% were easily annoyed and irritated; 33% had trouble concentrating; 28% felt restless and on edge; 22% felt a sense of loss; 19% were lonely; and 14% felt hopeless.

Kenny stated further that given the far-reaching emotional and financial consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was important that adequate attention was given to the mental health needs of the population as these 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,” he pointed out.

“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,” Kenny said.

Those who are most at risk include the elderly, front-line 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,” emphasised 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.”

He added that it was, however, encouraging to see that 33% 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 added.