Singapore

Experts fear long-term effect on mental health

Higher proportion of those working from home feel stressed compared with those on the front line: Study

The prolonged Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have a long-term effect on mental health, as stress levels rise with the uncertainty of the outbreak as well as the economic downturn it brings, experts have warned.

Dr Cornelia Chee, head of the department of psychological medicine at the National University of Singapore and the National University Hospital, said that when it comes to Singapore's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the "honeymoon" phase is long over.

That was from January to end-March when the various task forces and healthcare services were activated, and community and imported case transmission appeared to be well contained by robust public health measures, she said.

Singapore is now in the disillusionment phase, and more cases of anxiety and depression can be expected in the coming months, Dr Chee said.

"We certainly entered it in March as the dorm workers' cases increased and it was becoming obvious that our overall economic recovery was dependent not only on our ability to contain our imported and locally transmitted cases, but on how well other countries managed their outbreaks and responses too," said Dr Chee.

Dr Chee said Singapore's recovery phase - which comes after the disillusionment phase - will get under way here when there is pandemic control and economic recovery.

At the moment, this phase seems to hinge on the availability of a safe, effective and well-distributed vaccine, she said.

The Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) chief executive Gasper Tan said: "Without a clear indication of when the situation will improve, the prolonged exposure to these stressors and the impact of the pandemic may take a toll on one's mental health."

Data on increased mental health cases due to the pandemic may not be available yet, but calls to help hotlines have risen.

During the circuit breaker period, calls to the SOS hotline rose from 3,826 in March to 4,319 in April before dipping slightly to 4,265 in May. The April and May figures are about 30 per cent to 35 per cent higher than a year ago.

The National Care Hotline, which was launched in April to provide emotional and psychological support to those facing difficulties during the pandemic, has received 26,000 calls.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), which operates the hotline that is manned by trained volunteers, said the majority of the callers are above age 21.

Their top concerns include "mental health, marital and family issues, emotional support needed and financial or employment worries".

Dr Goh Kah Hong, head and senior consultant of psychological medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, said his department is seeing higher demand for its services.

VULNERABLE GROUPS

MSF chief psychologist Vivienne Ng said that apart from some people who may experience psychological distress, there are also vulnerable groups such as those with disabilities, people with mental health needs and the elderly, who may be isolated at home and need additional emotional support and access to specialised services.

"Individuals with financial problems and/or who are experiencing unemployment, as well as those with caring responsibilities for young children, the elderly or individuals with special needs may also feel additional stress during this period."

She advises people to talk to friends or family if they feel distressed.

"If you find yourself not able to function daily - having a poor appetite or being unable to sleep properly or concentrate, in low mood, for instance - please seek help early from a mental health practitioner," she said.

A recent Workplace Resilience survey among 1,407 respondents - including 114 front-line workers - found that more of those working from home feel stressed than those working on the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The survey, conducted by the National University Health System's Mind Science Centre, found that 61 per cent of those working from home reported feeling stressed, compared with 53 per cent of front-liners.

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