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Deal with Covid-19 mental health burden

BY REWARD MAGADHI

“In barely a week, five people I know personally have succumbed to Covid-19. My heart is sore and weary.

“This morning, I’m bidding farewell to a dear friend. Zoom funerals have become a sad reality,” a colleague recently wrote on Twitter.

“Guys, avoid gathering at funerals and spreading Covid-19. There is a family in Kwekwe that has lost six members to Covid,” another advised.

Covid-19 has ravaged the world and pushed the specter of death to the forefront of our lives.

It has been killing people by the thousands, leaving an incalculable human toll and indelible psychological scars.

The virus has upended our lives.

In the wake of this unprecedented global tragedy, the future looks gloomy.

The media is full of depressing headlines, statistics, condolence messages, and obituaries.

Lockdowns, restrictions, and a slew of precautions to curb the virus have resulted in uncertainty, isolation, and economic despair, which impact on mental health.

Research shows that disasters of such proportions can cause psychological illnesses like anxiety disorders, behavioural and emotional disorders, depression, paranoia, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Regrettably, governments often prioritise the treatment of physical illnesses while overlooking insidious psychological ones.

Against the backdrop of this grim outlook, leaders and policymakers need to design interventions that will address mental health problems and minimise the consequences of the pandemic.

United Nations secretary-general António Guterres has called on governments to give mental health the priority it has always deserved.

It is incontrovertible that the psychological impact of Covid-19 will last a while after the virus dissipates.

It will, therefore, require elaborate public mental health interventions.

The government should consider partnering with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to roll out stigma-busting campaigns, screenings, access to basic mental health care and psychological first-aid training (PFA).

To minimise on costs, the government, NGOs and other stakeholders should leverage existing infrastructure such as hospitals, clinics, and schools to boost support for mental health care and education.

If frontline workers at these institutions get basic psychological training, they can learn to deal with the pressure of the pandemic and assist patients, students and other members of their communities.

Education at these facilities can include PFA training.

PFA programmes have been used globally in the wake of disasters like the Ebola virus in West Africa.

PFA is meant to equip frontline workers with basic skills to support their well-being as well as the mental health of people in their communities.

The government should also make use of mass media to disseminate mental health education material.

It should launch public health campaigns aimed at educating the people about symptoms of distress.

This information will help people identify cases of mental health illnesses within their communities and assist each other to seek help.

The government must also consider investing in training of more mental health personnel.

Tertiary institutions must enroll more students in mental health educational programmes.

There is a paucity of data on mental health in Zimbabwe.

This speaks to the absence of mental health research programs and surveys.

The government must prioritise mental health research and gathering of longitudinal data to help policymakers design well-informed and efficacious interventions.

Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, who also doubles as Health minister recently said: “Providing mental health services is essential to upholding human rights, and scaling up cost-effective action is a priority for Zimbabwe.”

We have heard politicians speechify on mental health, yet the reality is that attention to it continues to be dwarfed by physical health considerations.

Will the government move beyond rhetoric on mental health?

  • Reward Magadhi writes about public policy issues

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