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Experts warn of the long-lasting psychological damage of coronavirus measures
After the waves of infection that have brought coronavirus to every nation on the planet, health professionals are bracing themselves for another outbreak. With treatments to combat the physical effects of the virus now making progress in the population, mental health experts fear the next wave will be a psychiatric one.
The pandemic has not only unleashed a physical threat on the world’s population but also a mental one. Restrictions brought in to control contact between people and reduce the spread of the virus are now showing to have had a severe detrimental effect on mental health. Fear, stress, anxiety and loneliness have been experienced by people of all ages and in all situations.
Belgium, of course, will not be spared and experts in the country have admitted that, just as frontline care workers in hospitals have been inundated with patients suffering from the physical illnesses associated with Covid-19, mental health professionals can expect a similar experience.
One main and worrying difference, however, is the fact that most if not all people will seek medical help when their bodies come under attack. Not everyone will do the same when it comes to the mind. Isolation, as a consequence of the coronavirus rules, is leading many to have dark thoughts as depression becomes the next wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Older people appear to be paying a double price during the crisis. In nursing homes, hospitals, they were the first victims of the virus. Today, as many live alone, it is now also their mental health that is at risk.
Annie Denys is 65. She lives alone in her cottage in Fontaine-Valmont, a small village in the Hainaut region. Her life before the pandemic was a rich one, filled with friends, singing in a choir, cinema, trips abroad. But on March 18, 2020, with the first stay-at-home, this life came to an end. For more than a year, Annie's daily life has been punctuated by long walks with only her little dog for company. "What else can I do?" she told RTBF. "This is my only outing. At the moment, there are no other activities, we no longer have a social or cultural life. Sadness has invaded me, I am afraid."
In the first few months of the stay-at-home period, Annie suffered from loneliness, but she held on in the hope that it would end soon. But as the summer came and went, the pensioner began to sink into a deep depression punctuated with suicidal thoughts. "It all started insidiously. Some days I didn't sleep, I was tormented, having nightmares... Then it got worse. I've had some dark thoughts. I take a treatment that would allow me to leave this life very quickly, a few pills, a small glass of water and it's over."
As a last resort, Annie tried to call the various helpline services. She called for four days with no answer. The helpline services have been overwhelmed by calls and cannot cope with the explosion in demand. In the end, out of desperation, she called the emergency services on 112 and spoke to a "charming policeman". The officer listened to Annie for half an hour and reassured her. He maybe he saved her life.
Constantina Nardone is 72 years old. On March 18, 2020, when Belgium ordered people to stay at home, she was on a humanitarian mission in the Central African Republic. Before the borders closed, she rushed back to Belgium. "I went home alone and quarantined," she told RTBF's investigation. “The hardest part was the contrast with my activity in Africa. There, I was busy, I felt needed. Here, I've become useless."
Constantina has dedicated her life to others, in Africa and elsewhere, but today she says she can no longer find meaning in her life. "I'm not doing anything anymore. I've become accustomed to silence."
To break the loneliness, she tried to reconnect with people via the Internet, but she quickly gave up. "I like social networks and the internet but it's not the same thing, it's wrong, it's not life. This is not my life. Maybe it's my Italian origins, but I need to live surrounded by people."
Loneliness ended up seriously affecting Constantina's mental health. "I cry a lot," she says. Thankfully, Constantina’s daughter, Lara, lives nearby and today the two women can see each other, and comfort each other. It is not the case for everyone.
It is not just the old who are suffering either. A lot has also been written about the effects the pandemic is having on the mental health of young people. Many have been speaking out on social media channels about the challenges and difficulties they have been facing, locked away from friends, family, school and social activities. Others have taken steps to get professional help as depression creeps in.
The Saint Pierre clinic in Ottignies is home to the largest child psychiatry service in Brabant Walloon. There, the staff has seen such a rise in demand that it has threatened to overwhelm them. In one year, admissions of young people in distress have tripled. "In January 2020, before the crisis, we were taking care of an average of 12 patients, a year later, in January of this year, 36 young people were admitted to the emergency room for psychological disorders," explains child psychiatrist Michèle Laurent.
Among the increasing pathologies, eating disorders top the list. "During the lockdown, the timing and importance of meals has become a problem for families," continues Dr. Laurent. “Eating too much, eating not enough, no longer doing sports… the relationship to the body has really changed in some teenagers. It is a hypothesis, but what is certain is that eating disorders have dramatically increased in this demographic."
The number of suicide attempts and self-harm cases have also increased. For Dr. Laurent, the reason that all these cases are coming to the emergency department is because the other front-line services are now to overwhelmed to deal with the number of cases. "If we had taken care of these young people earlier, we wouldn't have gotten to this point," she says. "There are not enough places for young people in distress in our country. The government is telling us that resources are being made available. We haven't seen the effects of it this yet."
Oceane Stokard is 19 years old. For the past year, her room is her universe. "I’ve spent the first year at home. Next year, I wonder what I will have learned. It's really hard to take classes. It's too much. We are not robots. It is not human.”
Over the months, Oceane has felt her mental health deteriorate. Initially, she feared dropping out of school, but now it has now become a real psychological problem. "I get up and start crying. It lasts twenty minutes and two hours later, I start crying again and I don't know why. What's the point of continuing?” A psychiatrist has since diagnosed her with depression.
As well as young people and the elderly, workers, families, caregivers are all feeling the effects of the coronavirus measures. Some are resisting and fighting the rising tide of dread, but others have already drowned under its waves. Mental health professionals are not optimistic about the future. The announced easing of restrictions and the ongoing vaccination campaign suggest a brighter future. But in the opinion of the psychologists and psychiatrists, the damage to the mental health of many Belgians has already been done and, for the most fragile, it will probably take years to resolve.
Interviews conducted by Jean-Christophe Adnet/RTBF.