People around the world face an increased risk of loneliness, addiction and other mental health issues as a result of new measures designed to protect the public from coronavirus, experts have warned.
Counsellors and psychologists have begun offering online video consultations to help patients cope with the problems associated with isolation, as workplaces are closed and people are urged to stay indoors and avoid meeting others.
Meanwhile, as some face the stress of potentially losing their jobs or having their salaries cut as a result of the crisis, others are dealing with the anxiety of having loved-ones stranded overseas.
Dr Reena Thomas, a clinical psychologist at Medeor Hospital in Dubai, said she had seen a “considerable increase” in mental health issues since the outbreak.
“I have seen an upsurge of anxiety, depression, OCD and health anxiety [hypochondriasis],” she said. “There are patients calling with death anxiety and nightmares too.
“I am really concerned about the pandemic, its associated restrictions and various changes it’s going to be imposing on all of us.
"I have seen my patients who were in remission getting worse again. I don't want them to lose it in this battle.”
VPS Healthcare, which runs Medeor Hospital, has recently launched a new online mental health service in response to the spike in the number of people seeking support.
It allows them to book appointments online and take part in a video conference with a psychologist. Staff have already been inundated with requests, reflecting the seriousness of the situation, Dr Thomas said.
“Some people may become hopeless or those with psychological issues may see their condition worsen,” she said.
“As Covid-19 is a highly contagious disease regardless of caste and creed, it’s quite stressful for all of us.
"However, the patients with existing anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are more vulnerable to have exacerbation of symptoms.
“People who are living here alone, especially elderly adults who are suffering from other physical health issues, are also at higher risk.”
Around the world there is growing concern about the mental health impact of measures being implemented to slow the spread of Covid-19.
The World Health Organisation [WHO] has published a guide to help people deal with loneliness during the crisis, urging them to socialise online.
It has promoted the idea of ‘digi-dining’, where people in different households order the same food, listen to the same music and even follow a dress code, before eating together and chatting over online streaming services.
Studies have found that prolonged loneliness increases the risk of clinical depression, and can also lead to physical problems such as cardiovascular disease, strokes and obesity.
“It is normal to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared or angry during a crisis,” the WHO has said, in response to concerns about Covid-19.
“If you feel overwhelmed, talk to a health worker or counsellor. Have a plan to seek help for physical and mental health needs if required.”
Dubai Media Office has also moved to arrange an information session about the mental health impact of Covid-19, calling on residents to submit questions which will be answered by a doctor online.
In particular, residents who live alone should adopt strategies to cope as many may already feel cut off from close friends and family members in their home countries, Johanna Griffin, a Dubai counsellor, said.
She stressed that keeping to a regular schedule, exercise, maintaining contact with loved-ones and keeping up personal hygiene even if staying at home were vital.
“Get up early at a certain time, maybe do some exercise and have breakfast,” Ms Griffin, who has also moved to online video consultations with clients, said.
“If you’re eating dinner on your own, that’s a good time to talk to your mum, family or whoever.
"Having something to look forward to is important, or the day can be quite long. It’s really important to reach out more.”
Ms Griffin, who has been advising clients for more than 30 years, said some people would be at increased risk of turning to unhealthy behaviours such as online gambling or drinking to ease boredom while others would turn to snacking and overeating.
Some concerned about the virus may find keeping up to date with the news reassuring, but others could become overwhelmed with negativity and it would be better to avoid it, she said.
“Try to view the extra free time as a positive – you can do things that you’ve always wanted to do, like reading more, taking an online course or watching documentaries,” she said.
“I have had clients who have found that looking after their hygiene, even pampering themselves, is really helpful even if they don’t go outdoors.
“It can also be difficult for families living together - some people are not used to being together all the time, and that can be quite hard.
"Have your own individual routine. With exercise, it can be quite good to do it on your own.
“Creating healthy boundaries is important and to try and be empathetic with each other.
"You’re going to have good days and bad days, ups and downs, and you’ve got to be realistic about that.”