Importance of mental health in region’s COVID-19 battle
Kelin Zvomuya and Noreen Kudzanai Wini Dari
COVID-19 is an infectious respiratory illness, which was declared a pandemic by World Health Organisation in 2020.
Although COVID-19 has its origins in biology, there they are a number of psychological factors that can impact its spread as well as the general population’s wellbeing.
In a pandemic, the population’s psychological reactions play an essential role in both the spread and containment of the disease.
At times such as this, where the world finds itself cornered and waiting for scientists to find a vaccine or a miracle, behaviour becomes an important piece of armour.
A complex interaction of internal and situational factors affects human behaviour. Knowledge and understanding of this complex interaction becomes important.
Stress is considered a normal part of life.
However, prolonged exposure to stress can be harmful to the body. Research has shown that both individual and family stress are linked to greater incidences of upper respiratory infections in human beings.
It is, therefore, imperative that mental wellbeing be prioritised in the fight to curb COVID-19 infections.
There has been immense emotional disturbance due to the fears and anxieties of Coronavirus infection and the challenges brought about by the lockdown.
Travel bans and social distancing have resulted in various traumas, including complicated grief, separation, loss of lives and loss of livelihood.
Information has been shared reminding people on the need to focus on what is in their control and avoid catastrophising everything.
People cannot magically control their feelings, or eliminate all fear and anxiety. Mental health interventions become important to help the population cope and adjust.
Unfortunately mental health has for long been treated as the Cinderella of healthcare - kept on the periphery and hidden from the wider world.
Kenya and South Africa started incorporating mental health early on in their response protocols to COVID, while in Zimbabwe mental health was not initially integrated.
It is important that mental health be considered an important factor in the response to COVID-19 as the pandemic poses challenges that can increase the likelihoods of mental distress and psychiatric morbidity.
Human behaviour will determine how quickly or slowly COVID-19 spreads.
The Capability, Opportunity, Motivation and Behaviour model (COM-B) recognises that behaviour is part of an interactive system.
Capability involves an individual’s psychological and physical capacity to engage in the activity concerned; and includes having the necessary knowledge and skills. In this case, if people have few resources, knowledge or information, then the pandemic continues to spread.
Opportunity comprises all the factors that lie outside of an individual that make the behaviour possible. It is crucial to note that, often the people’s Capability (C) and Opportunity (O) to engage in preventive measures are often absent, and people may act in ways that may increase exposure of contracting COVID-19.
All should be present for behaviour to occur, thus, it is important to ensure that people have the Capability, Opportunity and Motivation to enact key behaviours during this pandemic in order to curb COVID-19.
Motivation involves all those brain processes that energise and direct behaviour, not just goals and conscious decision-making. It includes habitual processes, emotional responses, as well as analytical decision-making.
Stress affects these motivation processes, as people who are stressed are less motivated to behave in the expected or prescribed manner that helps curb COVID-19. When threatened with stress, people sometimes simply give up and withdraw from the battle.
Some people routinely respond to stress with fatalism and resignation, passively accepting setbacks that can be effectively dealt with. This is known as “learned helplessness syndrome”.
Human behaviour is a key enabler to preventing infection. Mental health and its related fields of study are crucial in reducing the spread of COVID-19 as well as helping those who have been infected by the disease and family members who lost their loved ones.
People infected with or suspected of being infected with COVID-19 may experience extreme emotional and behavioural reactions. Unmanaged, these symptoms may evolve into mental health disorders.
Prevention is better than cure. Let’s acknowledge mental health and help ensure our people’s wellbeing.
Kelin Zvomuya is a final year Psychology student at the University of Zimbabwe. Noreen Kudzanai Wini Dari is a community psychologist, a member of the Zimbabwe Psychological Association, and a part-time lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe. Zvomuya and Dari wrote this article in their personal capacities