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'We must now prepare for the mental health damage that Covid-19 will do'

Lisa Molloy, head of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says the Government must not drop the ball on mental health.

WHILE IT IS too soon for us to know the full extent of the psychological and mental health ramifications of this pandemic, we do know that they will be significant and that we will be dealing with the fallout for some time to come.

A review of the evidence on the impact of quarantine – published in March 2020 in the Lancet – highlights that there is likely to be wide-ranging, substantial and long-lasting psychological and mental health effects arising from this pandemic.

Being separated from loved ones, the loss of freedoms, the uncertainty over disease status and even the boredom associated with quarantine can be very challenging. We don’t need a crystal ball to see into the future, we can and must learn from past events.

Research in Sierra Leone has found that people affected by the Ebola epidemic experienced high rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

For years after Hurricane Katrina, people in New Orleans who had been affected by the hurricane reported difficulties in going to work during hurricane season, due to reactivated trauma. The SARS epidemic in 2003 also led to high rates of PTSD and depression among patients who had contracted the disease.

Quarantine impacts

Looking to studies of hospital staff, the recent Lancet review points to symptoms of acute stress disorder, exhaustion, detachment, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, poor concentration and deteriorating work performance for who were quarantined during the SARS outbreak. The review highlighted that “the effect of being quarantined was a predictor of post-traumatic stress symptoms in hospital employees even three years later”.

Our frontline staff, here in Ireland, need the support of mental health professionals such as counsellors and psychotherapists, now and into the future, as the full effects of dealing with this pandemic take hold.

Mental health professionals are playing their part alongside the frontline healthcare staff to help alleviate the psychological toll that is being taken on their wellbeing and mental health.

The country’s response to this crisis has been incredible and many people and organisations across all sectors of our society have stepped up to play their part. In addition to numerous individuals, groups and bodies offering critical mental health supports, many our Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP) members are offering their services free of charge to frontline healthcare workers.

Life, changing

The effects of this pandemic are being experienced throughout the country with all parts of life being affected. Ireland is struggling to come to terms with the impact of changing work circumstances, financial insecurity, isolation, bereavement, the prolonged uncertainty, and resulting anxiety and trauma caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.

In springtime last year the IACP carried out a nationally representative survey into the mental health and wellbeing of Irish adults. We were keen to find out about how often people say they feel stressed, anxious, depressed and lonely or isolated.

The results tell us that in an ordinary spring almost half of Irish adults can feel stressed, more than a third anxious, and approximately a fifth depressed or lonely/isolated – either ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’. This is by no means an ordinary spring. The current pandemic is stressful for everyone but those who have pre-existing mental health issues may be especially at risk.

Government help is welcome

We at the IACP welcome the recent launch by Minister for Health Simon Harris TD, of a mental health and wellbeing initiative aimed at supporting the diverse mental health needs of the public during the Covid-19 pandemic. It will require policymakers and society as a whole to take the psychological impact of the pandemic, not just its threats to physical health, seriously.

There is an opportunity now to revisit Sláintecare and for counselling and psychotherapy to be enabled to play a more central role in our primary care health system.

The Government needs to commit to a system of state-funded universal access to mental health supports, together with a clearly defined programme of implementation to deliver on this objective.

This is a critical requirement that will be essential in safeguarding the longer-term mental wellbeing of this nation. The IACP strongly encourages the Government to continue to maximise the role of counselling and psychotherapy and is fully committed to helping it address the inevitable mental health ramifications of this unprecedented crisis.

Lisa Molloy is Chief Executive of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP). Lisa has held senior roles across a number of organisations including the Medical Council of Ireland, Local Government Management Services Board, Eastern Regional Health Authority and Eastern Health Shared Services.

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