Patterns of distress: Psychological welfare during the COVID-19 pandemic

As July began, 107 days had passed since the Luzon mainland was placed under community quarantine. In what has become the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdown, the country’s quarantine period has even surpassed the 76-day lockdown of the Chinese city of Wuhan—the ground zero of the pandemic.   

Altered eating and sleeping patterns, increased difficulties with concentrating, and worsened mental health conditions are among the prevalent ramifications that physical isolation has induced and amplified. The COVID-19 crisis has caused major changes in society, the global economy, and the global environment, but perhaps the most pervasive manifestations of these drastic effects are in the form of psychological distress. 

This pattern of distress continues to permeate throughout the nation as more Filipinos are experiencing anxiety and depression since quarantine measures were imposed, according to National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) Director Dr. Roland Cortez. Before lockdowns were imposed, the NCMH’s crisis hotline received an average of 50 to 80 calls per month. Now, the monthly tally has risen to 300 to 400 calls.

By-products of a pandemic

Last April, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that more than seven million Filipinos have lost their jobs amid the pandemic. This immediate surge of unemployment has forced people to contend with difficult decisions in a disruptive new context—sending pre-pandemic plans, routines, and safety nets into disarray.

How people respond to the pandemic can vary depending on multiple factors such as their health and emotional background, economic stability, and support system presence. Be that as it may, it remains clear that everyone—if not most—is affected in one way or another by this ongoing crisis.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health may not be the same for everyone, just like other disasters and emergencies we have faced in the past,” establishes Assistant Prof. Lecturer Jim Baloloy from the Psychology Department. 

Although individual reactions to stress may vary, he asserts that these responses are “normal reactions” that people exhibit when facing an “abnormal” situation, manifesting in physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive forms. 

Common physical reactions may range from “high blood pressure, a sense of tiredness even [without] doing any intense physical work, difficulty in getting sleep, and difficulty [waking] up from sleep,” Baloloy cites, whereas common emotional responses include “anxiety, sadness, fear, lack of enjoyment, and irritability.”

Relentless storm

The significant changes in people’s lifestyles have caused unprecedented levels of emotional distress as attending online classes or working from home has “blurred the boundary between working and resting, whereas both are now being done [in] the same place,” Baloloy explains. 

He suggests that some individuals may have immersed themselves in work as a response to pressure, perceiving a need to be more productive while at home for an extended amount of time.

As an introvert, Karl Rom (IV, CS-CSE) thought that he could handle being quarantined for a prolonged time period. However, the adverse effects of the pandemic have taken a toll on his mental health, making him more sensitive to “negative emotions such as anger and the feeling of hopelessness [about] the situation,” he discloses. Over the last few months, Rom has been “trying to distract” himself by working on projects for his student organization and trying his hand at freelance work.

Amid consecutive lockdown extensions, productivity has become a ubiquitous metric for measuring self-worth, disguised as a form of escape from the traumas that continue to grip the world.

A double-edged alternative 

Since the community quarantine was imposed, people have increasingly become more aware of the value of connectedness and the importance of maintaining relations with other people. 

“We may have lost physical contact with others for the past several months, but I could not say that we really became socially isolated due to the quarantine,” Baloloy says on society’s continued pursuit of social interactions. “While we became physically distant, we are still socially close,” he remarks. 

However, the psychologist furthers that while online facilities have enabled us to virtually connect with others, excessive digital consumption may also be detrimental to one’s well-being, with the online realm having its own sets of stressors. 

On the adverse effects of prolonged media exposure, a study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that despite the importance of staying updated regarding the unfolding crisis, constant contact with devastating news may result in a “feedback loop” of worry and distress. “People with the greatest concerns may seek out more media coverage of an event, which can further increase their distress,” the report states.

Reclaiming agency

While access to mental health services remains limited, Baloloy states that the practice has quickly adapted to address the demands of the present environment. Initiatives such as the Mindcare Club offer telemental health services that allow for real-time communication between the patient and a mental health professional through video calls and interactive audio. A range of counseling, treatment, and therapy sessions are conducted by licensed psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health counselors, and physicians with mental health training.

In response to similar growing concerns, the University’s Psychology Department and its Counseling and Educational Psychology Department have established their own free telemental health program dubbed Telepsychology for the Lasallian Community. 

Despite the enactment of the Mental Health Act in 2018, the state of mental healthcare in the country is still riddled with deficits. Underinvestment, lack of mental health professionals, and underdeveloped community mental health services are only some of the challenges that the country continues to struggle with. The unprecedented arrival of the pandemic has exposed how unequipped the country is—and Filipinos are paying the price.

By Kent Regalado

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