Mental health during a lockdown

Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha

By  Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha


Mental health is often one of the first casualties of a lockdown or a disruption of an established pattern of life. We react in different ways to deprivation, to immobility, to enforced restriction. We all have different levels of coping mechanisms genetically. Some are more resilient than others. Some have escape routes made possible by their social, religious, and/or economic circumstances. In the last three odd months, across the world, the statistics have been frightening. Suicides. Verbal and physical forms of abuse. Spouse abuse and or child abuse. Increase in rape cases. To put it simply, too many people have ‘lost it’! To lose it has implications for the self and others. It impacts the lives of people around us, whether at home or in the office.

  During the lockdown, too many people became too preoccupied with their own worries, uncertainties – about their future, the world, their career or business, their offspring, what to eat (for the majority in the developing world) and their health. The cable news reports are not helpful. They paint a picture of doom and gloom. Social media is worse. Right in their palms, people hold devices that succeed in upsetting their mental health. Those videos and pictures are not good for the spirit. But the human being is often attracted to the unusual, the horrible scenes from another environment. Brutalized bodies, victims of knife or gun attacks are displayed for all to see. At night, some of those pictures come haunting us. And sleep becomes a casualty. Those who cannot sleep well could also easily lose it when push comes to shove. They become nervous wrecks, easily giving in to their emotions.

   Indeed, for some, the lockdown has led to the onset of some physical conditions which daily activities had helped to contain. For example, being sedentary during this period is dangerous to physical health and ultimately mental health. Inactivity is especially dangerous for people with certain underlying health conditions. Hypertension and diabetes are two main diseases that must not be fuelled through prolonged inactivity. Yet, during the lockdown, people were compelled to stay sedentary for days or weeks. In some neighbourhoods, going out for a walk is not safe. Or. Fear of catching the virus was a real fear.   

  In our part of the world, very few people take mental health seriously. This is attributable to ignorance, superstition, and many years of false narratives. For a victim who had managed to avoid twenty-four hours of contact with a predator or oppressor, the lockdown resulted in having to stay together in harsh circumstances. In Europe, the number of persons who sought shelter increased astronomically. In Nigeria, we may not have the statistics. Victims are compelled to stick it out sometimes at the cost of dying. A woman who is not empowered financially and who has kids may be forced to stay in an abusive relationship because there is simply nowhere to go. In the big cities, some women groups have come up with shelters for victims. But not too many women know about such facilities. The size of the facilities and funding them are also challenges which NGOs deal with routinely. Some women still see it as shameful to seek shelter from complete strangers. The old communal system in which a victim was culturally obliged to seek refuge in family has all but broken down.

   During the lockdown mental health facilities were highly restricted. Some of the hospitals opened only at restricted hours. Taking in patients for permanent care became a nightmare. For, most of the hospitals do not have adequate Personal Protection Equipment to guarantee protection for their workers. When these facilities opened, they handled most cases as outpatients. In fact, as has been reported, regular hospitals rejected patients who manifested symptoms that resembled COVID-19 indications. Hypertensive or diabetic patients who went into distress were automatically rejected by hospitals for fear of contracting the dreaded virus. Is this not enough to trigger off a mental health crisis? Picture a widow or a family that has lost a loved one to coronavirus and cannot receive visitors owing to fear of contracting or spreading the virus. The mental torture becomes double. But is a reality that we currently confront.

   The coronavirus is scary. No one can say with any certainty how it can be contained, when it can be contained and when a vaccine can be found. This increases distress, distresses the mind, and affects physical health. So, we need faith. Blind faith. After gaining some knowledge about how the disease travels or infects people, we should take all necessary protection and leave the rest to God. The state governments, working with NGOs, should set up counselling centres with toll free helplines. I know how many people have got relief just from talking to a stranger about their challenges, real and imaginary. Power holders should realise that everyone needs counselling at some point. It is not only for the poor or the weak. Mental health distress knows no boundaries – social, religious, rich, poor, fat, thin. There are some who have taken to taken to substance abuse to overcome the symptoms of depression or other forms of mental illness. Alcohol consumption is a good example. It provides temporary relief. But until the underlying problem is resolved the problem will linger.

    The lockdown also closed outlets where people ordinarily went to ease their tension. The closure of beer parlours and night clubs for some has been devastating. For others, churches, and religious centres where they heard soothing words and participated in group activities to reduce stress were no longer there to perform therapeutic roles. Rape cases increased because outlets where some went to release pent-up feelings were shut down. This does not justify rape. Rape is reprehensible and criminal and offenders, male and female, should be punished according to the laws of the land.        

 Finally, while COVID19 lasts, do things to keep you happy. Avoid distressing news. Avoid situations that drive you crazy. Be positive. If you can stay away from an abusive spouse, do so. Keep hope alive. Coro will not, cannot kill all of us! Cheers.

Professor Eghagha who writes from the University of Lagos, can be reached on 08023220393      

Credit: The Guardian