How has the COVID Pandemic Affected our Mental Health?
Dr. Salih Murat Paker – Clinical Psychologist – Psychotherapist – December 2021
COVID is a huge epidemic that shook the whole world. It has been going on for two years. Although it has been brought under some control thanks to vaccines, the danger has not yet passed completely. Unfortunately, many countries still do not have full access to vaccines. Even if there is no problem of accessing to vaccines, a significant portion of people in almost all countries stay away from vaccines due to skepticism largely based on conspiracy theories. As of January 1st of 2022, nearly 300 million people were infected with this virus, and close to 5.5 million people died because of it. In fact, the COVID pandemic is in the 5th or 6th place in terms of loss of life among the recorded pandemics in human history. So, how did this pandemic affect our psychology besides its medical and economic effects?
To answer this question, let us remember some of the basic facts we have endured during the pandemic:
• Confusion, uncertainty, precautions
• Various levels of quarantine, radical changes in social relations and work patterns
• Rapidly increasing number of patients, hospital/intensive care experiences/news
• Rapidly increasing death news
• Vaccination campaigns, anti-vaccine /conspiracy theories
• Inadequacies of institutional official structures, especially governments
• Socio-economic crises
All this undoubtedly strained our mental health. Although it is in different forms and levels for everyone, we all had some difficulties depending on many factors. As in every field, a lot of research has been done in the field of psychology during the COVID pandemic.
As might be expected, extreme stress, anxiety, depression, panic behaviors, collective hysteria, and widespread feelings of hopelessness were reported among the most common psychological effects of the COVID pandemic. For those who were exposed to quarantine for a long time, some additional potential symptoms such as mood changes, anger, post-traumatic stress symptoms, emotional exhaustion, fears, sleep problems, confusion, grief, and emotional numbing were also caught on the researchers’ radar. It has been observed that after quarantine, situations such as excessive hand washing, obsession with cleanliness, avoidance of crowds, and inability to return to normal life might continue for a long time.
According to a group of researchers, there are certain factors that determine how much and in which way we will be psychologically affected by the epidemic. The four psychological states (extreme fear, intense anxiety, social isolation-loneliness, and feeling of frustration/boredom) create varying degrees of burden for everyone. However, five critical moderating variables largely affect how successfully we can cope with that burden:
1) If our resilience is high depending on our personality style,
2) if we are able to be aware of and express our emotions,
3) if the support we could receive from our social networks is sufficient,
4) if we have sufficient material supplies (food, money, medicine, clothing, etc.), and
5) if we can get enough information about the situation,
We could adapt to new difficult situations without experiencing serious psychological problems or living a little. If there are disruptions or deficiencies in these factors, serious psychological problems may arise at varying degrees.
Extreme fears due to the pandemic
According to research, many people have experienced intense fears about their health and that of their loved ones, and the risk of infecting others. It has been observed that these fears are more pronounced especially in those who experience certain physical symptoms, pregnant women, and people with small children.
While the age we live in is already an age of deep uncertainty due to wars, political tensions, dizzying technological changes, and the climate crisis, the COVID pandemic has increased this uncertainty and the associated anxiety tremendously. The main reason for this anxiety is that there is no absolute clear answer to many critical questions such as “will I get sick?”, “will I infect others?”, “who can die?”, “will I lose my job?”, “will I be able to take care of my children?”, “will the vaccines work?”, “when will this epidemic end?”, “will we be able to return to our previous lives?”. We can only talk at the level of probabilities. Most people’s tolerance for uncertainty is not very large, so this uncertainty is a problem that needs to be addressed seriously and primarily in crises like COVID because pervasive and chronic anxiety is the root problem that lies behind almost all psychological problems.
Feelings of Frustration / Boredom
During the pandemic, we became unable to do many things we were used to doing, and our social relationships were restricted as much as possible. Inevitably, we experienced a loss of freedom, entered a state of being trapped. Our sense of frustration and boredom increased. These are situations that magnify stress and anger.
Social Isolation / Loneliness
The loosening of social bonds and prolonged loneliness are predictably the factors that feed into depression. We experienced this in abundance during the epidemic.
What to do?
In the light of the research studies on the psychological effects of the COVID pandemic and the experience gained from the field, the following suggestions can be made:
• It is very important for governments and other official institutions to share information and build trust on the basis of transparency and consistency. They should be made to feel social and political pressure in this direction.
• Carrying out a very systematic fight against conspiracy theories and vaccine skepticism; rapidly increasing vaccination rates.
• Not allowing the measures to be taken to weaken social ties as much as possible. Individuals, families, and social groups should find alternative ways to fight social isolation effectively.
• Special attention should be paid to self-care, which includes mindful eating, physical activity, medical check-ups, and pleasurable activities, etc.
• Promoting simple methods (exercise, yoga, meditation, breathing/relaxation, etc.) and psycho-educational resources that have been shown to be beneficial in coping with stress and anxiety; making them publicly available and accessible to everybody.
• Ensuring and encouraging those with more serious psychological difficulties to receive professional support such as psychotherapy. The criterion here may be that the person begins to have serious difficulties in maintaining their daily life, that is, in maintaining their work, school, self-care, and social/emotional relationships, and cannot overcome these difficulties with the support of their environment.
 For example:
Passavanti, M., Argentieri, A., Barbieri, D. M., Lou, B., Wijayaratna, K., Foroutan Mirhosseini, A. S., Wang, F., Naseri, S., Qamhia, I., Tangerås, M., Pelliciari, M., & Ho, C. H. (2021). The psychological impact of COVID-19 and restrictive measures in the world. Journal of Affective Disorders, 283, 36–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2021.01.020
Pandey, D., Bansal, S., Goyal, S., Garg, A., Sethi, N., et al. (2020) Psychological impact of mass quarantine on population during pandemics—The COVID-19 Lock-Down (COLD) study. PLOS ONE 15(10): e0240501. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0240501
 Serafini, G., Parmigiani, B., Amerio, A., Aguglia, A., Sher, L., Amore, M. (August 2020). The psychological impact of COVID-19 on the mental health in the general population, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 113:8, 531–537, https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcaa201