As we all know, the pandemic has caused more than a severe health crisis; it also precipitated a global economic recession and political and social upheaval in many countries.
The consequences of COVID-19 on mental health and well-being may be less well recognized yet are no less significant. Could a secondary mental health crisis be coming?
In the recent report,Impact of COVID-19 on conversations about the future of the insurance sector, UNESPA concluded that, with the pandemic, "new invisible threats are being created, fears that affect people's way of life, concerns that were not previously taken into account. Contrary to what was thought to be the threats of the modern world (wars, natural catastrophes), new threats related to more abstract and subjective aspects have been introduced."
Currently, we know some people are facing anxiety, fear, isolation, financial worries, and uncertainty about their health. Families have had to cope with the isolation of loved ones who have died in hospitals and nursing homes without being able to see them to say a last goodbye. Many people have lost their jobs, their businesses. Workers in many sectors, especially in the health sector, are taking the risk of getting the disease to ensure the functioning of society. Studies also show an increase in alcohol usage and domestic violence. And for those already struggling with mental health issues prior to the pandemic, the burden is even greater.
Another problem for much of the population is the pervasiveness and changeability of news about COVID-19. Paradoxically, those who are most worried are the most likely to seek out more information, in theory trying to reduce uncertainty. However, this information saturation can further foster anxiety. Different perceptions of risk, and differing comfort levels with uncertainty, mean that we do not all act in the same way when it comes to taking precautionary measures. For those who are most attentive, witnessing another part of the population that is much more relaxed can in itself lead to frustration and additional stress.
The World Health Organization refers to this phenomenon as Pandemic Fatigue, defined as "a natural and expected response to a prolonged public health crisis." It is, therefore, a response that has as much to do with our minds as our bodies when facing a serious and long-lasting situation. And this response can lead to a mental health crisis.
How can we tackle this phenomenon? Traditional practices, such as regular exercise, maintaining social interactions, and even staying in the workplace, are now severely constrained by the need for social distancing. A common reaction is to turn to medication. In Spain, demand for prescription antidepressant products has been on an upward trend since the start of the pandemic, as shown by the third Cofares Trends analysis. Cofares is one of the largest pharmacological cooperatives and distributors in Spain, and according to this study, in the period from September to November 2020 (corresponding to the second wave), the use of antidepressants increased by close to 6% compared to 2019 levels.
An online search shows that COVID-19 has raised awareness of mental health, and there are multiple applications, schemes and resources to support mental wellbeing. It would be impossible to summarize all the proposed measures in this article, but I would like to emphasize a couple of ideas.
- Without ignoring or minimizing the serious consequences of the pandemic and the specific needs of those with underlying mental health disorders, we all need to focus our thoughts on the positive. When we are depressed or stressed, we see everything through a glass that does not allow anything positive to pass through.
However, this period is teaching us to value things we had put aside, such as the importance of family time, improvement in pollution levels due to the reduced use of vehicles, savings in travel time, acceleration in the use of technologies that improve our quality of life, social solidarity in times of need, and the list goes on. Choose which ones make the most sense to you and focus on them.
- There are many references to “the new normal” regarding working remotely and virtual contact with customers and prospects. The past year has shown that these approaches – once viewed dubiously – can be very effective. Perhaps our “new normal” work environment will now also reflect a greater awareness of the importance of the mind-body connection that will drive more products, services, and focus on mental well-being.
- Also, the technology that has enabled us to work from home also makes it easier to connect with mental health support. Our smartphones and tablets give the public, doctors, and researchers new ways to access help, monitor progress, and increase understanding of mental well-being.
One last point regarding the insurance sector: it is gratifying to see how the insurance industry has responded to its customers during this pandemic. Since March 2020, insurers have demonstrated a firm commitment to serving society through many actions, including extending coverage and consideration to insureds beyond what the language of the policies calls for. It is my belief that these actions are helping mitigate stress and pandemic fatigue and hopefully minimizing risks to mental health.