How the Arab world can deal with the mental health consequences of the coronavirus

DUBAI: Since the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy physical and psychological toll on primary health care workers in the Arab region and around the world.

But this is also a troubling and disruptive time for the general population as large swaths of humanity are severely cut off from public life for months on end.

Loneliness, social isolation, health problems and job insecurity affect adults, and people with underlying mental disorders especially need support.

Contributing to the stress for many people is the forced transition from living independently to sharing day and night with a spouse or family members, caring for children on the job and, in extreme cases, becoming victims of domestic violence.

“COVID-19 has dramatically shown all of us that we actually have very little control and that all the things that we hold dear and important in life can just change in the blink of an eye,” said Dr. Tara Wyne, clinical psychologist and clinical. Director at LightHouse Arabia in Dubai.

“This makes people feel very baseless and powerless. People worry about many things: peace of mind, normalcy, jobs, the ability to connect with loved ones, and certainty about the future. “

According to Wyne, mental illness, in combination with forced social isolation, can increase vulnerabilities.

A health worker checks the body temperature of passengers departing Dubai International Airport for Frankfurt on April 6, 2020. (AFP)

“Suddenly we see people neglecting what they already know, turning night into day, eating too much, exercising less and less,” she told Arab News.

“People indulge in self-treatment in response to all changes and lose (through) different ways, such as smoking, drinking, watching TV, constant news consumption, and panic buying.

“This response shows how much we appreciate our daily routine and how lost we can feel to sudden changes.”

Wyne said it may take us a while to realize how unhealthy our responses are and how hard we need to develop a new routine, set daily goals, and stick to them.

“For those living alone, loneliness can become a problem as there is no one who can simply reach for security, comfort or distraction when needed,” she said.

“Forced togetherness with children or a spouse with little room for private space or free time can also be very challenging.”

According to Dr. Marta Ra, CEO of Paracelsus Recovery, a leading Zurich mental health clinic, the pandemic has placed humanity in a global emergency with long-term consequences.

This makes many feel powerless, vulnerable, scared and angry.


$ 2.5 trillion

Annual Global Economic Cost of Mental Disorders (WHO estimate)

“These emotions increase our stress levels,” she said. “If you only isolate yourself, stress will increase the impact of loneliness and worsen the underlying problems. If you isolate yourself with loved ones, it can show up in more conflict. “

To face these issues, people need to re-create their perspectives, show compassion and create routines, Ra said.

When stress levels cause conflict, people in such circumstances must use a “code word” to indicate that it takes time to relax.

“When you’re alone, make contact with friends and family part of your daily routine,” she said.

Our physical health also has a significant impact on our emotional well-being. Exercise, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep are all helpful tools for fighting stress and staying mentally fit. “

Although experts believe the pandemic period will negatively impact people’s psychological well-being, they say such consequences cannot be completely prevented.

Rather, people should try to cope and cope better by being kind and compassionate to themselves when they don’t live up to their expectations.

“Develop a routine that works for you, including healthy sleeping and eating habits, as both affect your mood,” said Resha Erheim, a Dubai-based mental health advisor and member of the Canadian Counselor and Psychotherapy Association.

“Self-care must become part of your daily routine; Exercise, taking up a hobby, or doing something that gives you a sense of achievement and pleasure will help you cope better.

Spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, and contemplation will help build resilience and reduce your fear of the future and what you cannot control.

Studies have also shown that exercising greater appreciation and gratitude for life leads to greater happiness.

What advice would Erheim offer in these circumstances?

“Try to maintain a positive outlook and look at the personal and universal silver linings of this crisis,” she said.

“Share your skills, offer your services, help others, and other acts of kindness, all of which can help you feel happier and more satisfied with your life.

“I certainly believe that if we flatten the COVID-19 curve, we will see an increase in mental health problems and violence, not only during the pandemic, but also in the post-pandemic period.”

Erheim says the trend of a collective experience of grief and trauma leading to psychological worry has already been confirmed by multiple sources.

“I imagine we will see a general increase in the diagnosis of mental illness, more people needing and seeking treatment, and more victims of domestic violence needing help,” she said.

“For example, mental health service providers will be inundated with increasing demand and must prepare for an increase in numbers.”

Some experts hope that a crisis of this magnitude will prompt people to think about their lives on different levels: personally, within communities, and on a global level.

“The pandemic meant incarceration, more rules and regulations and all kinds of restrictions,” said Laurence Moriette, a psychotherapist at the Center for Psychiatry and Therapy in Dubai Healthcare City.

“The type of impact it has is closely related to people’s socio-economic situation. Those who live close to family or colleagues will face a plumbing problem in the first place, ”she said.

“Many of the people living in the GCC are not locals, and they’ve seen their jobs quit and have had to go back, sometimes to countries they haven’t been to for years. The impact for them is therefore enormous. “

Moriette said uncertainty about the virus, its transmission, recovery, and impact creates fear and anxiety, leading to thoughts that are natural but sometimes irrational.

“We are afraid of human contact, of anyone who does not wear a mask. Other people become potential threats, ”said Moriette.

Then there is the issue of longer screen time, which also leads to more family conflicts and potentially over-reliance or addiction to smartphones.

“Whatever was going on before the lockdown to a lesser extent has been reinforced,” said Moriette.

But he noted that there is also a positive side. “Care for others, solidarity and appreciation are also widely propagated worldwide.

“People help their neighbors and the common threat has strengthened some ties. Some of my patients living alone report a greater sense of belonging. “

Nevertheless, when relationships within a household become tense, Moriette said, the solution lies in understanding the underlying problems and then avoiding them or beating them up at calmer moments.

“We’re all in this together,” she said.

“This is a good time to get to know yourself and grow. Keep a journal or learn meditation. Remember, these are tough times, so it’s okay to struggle. “

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