Mental Health and COVID-19: Challenges and Lessons Learned

10 October 2021

Anxiety, depression, fear of uncertainty…these are some of the symptoms of what specialists call “post-traumatic stress”. Mental disorders associated with what we have experienced during the pandemic are evident, although we have also learned that human beings are very resilient and can be at their best in extreme situations. 

Today, World Mental Health Day, we are talking to two fellows from the ”la Caixa” Foundation, who’ll be explaining to us why not everyone has experienced and felt things in the same way:
María Reneses Botija, who is a psychologist and researcher at Comillas University of Madrid, where she is studying about cybercrime and minors, and Gonzalo Martínez-Alés García, a researcher at the Psychiatric Epidemiology Unit of the School of Public Health of Columbia University in New York.

Young People and Vulnerable Communities, the Most Affected

“A lockdown in 30m² is not the same as a lockdown in 200m², and it’s easier to live with closed schools and empty classrooms when you can afford to pay someone to look after your kids while you’re at work”, says María. “These are what we call the social determinants of health, that mean that people have different life expectancies and different probabilities of becoming ill, depending, among other things, on where they live”. 

María Reneses Botija is a psychologist and researcher at Comillas University of Madrid.María Reneses Botija is a psychologist and researcher at Comillas University of Madrid.

In addition to a greater risk of suffering from depression and anxiety or of taking drugs, there is another element we should take into account in extreme situations: social support. Who will be able to look after my kids? And my elderly parents? In these situations, getting help from family members and friends or from a neighbour can be therapeutic, or at least reduce the risk of becoming ill. 

This is one of the lessons we have learned from the pandemic, says María: “Appreciating the importance of social support and of community networks, and recognising that we are dependent beings, in stark contrast to the fiction of individual autonomy. Something so basic and yet so crucial; that we need other people to feel good and that this has significant effects on our health”.

Young people as a whole have been one of the groups that have suffered the worsening of mental health associated with the pandemic and lockdown. “They have spent more time connected to social media. This, sometimes, has combined with poor family living arrangements and feelings of loneliness and isolation. As a result, the increased vulnerability of victims has led to an increase of cyberbullying, sexual harassment and and the abuse of minors online in the last two years.” explains María, mentioning some of the conclusions of the Rayuela European research project, led by Comillas University of Madrid.

When Those in Need are the Carers

Although at first glance it’s hard to find positives, Gonzalo Martínez-Alés García points to the response of families, schools and neighbourhoods to meet the social, financial and mental health needs of their communities. There has also been an improvement in awareness and a more positive perception of those people who work on the front line, such as nurses, social workers and primary care and hospital doctors. 

Gonzalo Martínez-Alés García is a researcher at the Psychiatric Epidemiology Unit of the School of Public Health of Columbia University in New York.Gonzalo Martínez-Alés García is a researcher at the Psychiatric Epidemiology Unit of the School of Public Health of Columbia University in New York.

“Working under the pressure that health workers have been exposed to has also caused an increase in mental health problems among public health service workers, similar to those of clinical staff”. The system wasn’t ready for this and most initial care came through informal care and through support between partners, according to analysis. And although eventually specialised programmes on mental health were set up, they have had a low acceptance rate among health workers. About this, Gonzalo says: “A pending challenge is to identify and remove barriers that stop these workers from accessing appropriate interventions”.

In view of the evidence, all we can do is learn and plan a better response for the future. And this is the lesson regarding mental health: “Perhaps the most important thing is to establish robust mental health care systems, with sufficient human and technical resources to stay operational and even increase their work in situations of collapse in other parts of the system” concludes Gonzalo.

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