Different groups of different people in different parts of Malawi are experiencing the novel Coronavirus (Covid -19) pandemic and its devastating effects very differently, a UK-based Malawian charity on mental health and well-being, MentalCare has said.
MentalCare UK, a Malawian charitable organisation based in the United Kingdom but operates in Malawi, says there is a greater need for Malawi to invest heavily in mental health as one sizable area of concern as regards Covid-19 is the colossal impact of the pandemic on mental health and how this is affecting some groups much more than others.
Executive director of MentalCare, Gerald Namwaza-Banda, told Nyasa Times: "Good mental health is an asset and is also linked to good physical health - both of which support positive social and economic outcomes for individuals and society and it is for this good reason that Malawi must invest greatly on her people's mental health and well-being.
"Mental health disorders account for almost a quarter of the total burden of ill-health in Malawi. Poor mental health is strongly associated with social and economic circumstances, including; living in abject poverty, low-quality work, high unemployment and poor housing conditions."
Namwaza-Banda, a Mental health expert who is currently working with the UK's National Health Service (NHS), said that there is also good provable evidence of mental disorders following disasters, including proof of evidence from previous viral outbreaks.
"It is therefore right to suggest that Covid-19, and the response to the pandemic, could have a significant impact on the nation's mental health through increased exposure to stressors. Mental health and well-being of the citizens must be the new government's priority for a health mind is key to development of any country," he said.
Namwaza Banda added: "Exacerbating this, there has been a loss of coping mechanisms for many in our country, and reduced access to mental health treatment.
"Here we draw together emerging evidence on aspects of the pandemic that are impacting on mental health, and inequalities in who is affected most."
Namwaza-Banda said MentalCare is pleading with both President Lazarus Chakwera and his deputy, Saulos Chilima to make mental health and well-being, a Tonse Alliance government's top priority.
"Only health minded people will be able to move the country forward while those with diseased minds will forever be a national burden. Mental health problems cannot be ignored especially in this era of the ongoing toxic Coronavirus pandemic," said Namwaza-Banda.
Mental-health and the pandemic
According to a recent research conducted across Malawi by MentalCare, majority of Malawian adults and youths feel somewhat or very worried about the effects of COVID -19 is having on their lives especially on the social and economic frontiers.
"It has been established, through our commissioned research, that the most common issues affecting well-being are that many people are worried about the future, feeling stressed or anxious and feeling bored by the turn of events and surrounding circumstances due to the global epidemic," said Namwaza-Banda.
However, Namwaza-Banda said while some degree of worry is understandably widespread, more severe mental ill health is being experienced by some groups of people.
According to Namwaza-Banda the MentalCare has been monitoring mental health symptoms throughout the Covid-19 outbreak, and found that the levels of anxiety, stress and depression have dramatically risen in Malawi since the news of virus broke adding that this has highly affected people with mental illness.
"All this simply means that there is a strong evidence that there's a widening of pre-existing inequalities in mental health. Looking critically but with a sober mind at the drivers of poor mental health in the pandemic can shine a light on the reasons for this," said Namwaza-Banda.
Social isolation and the Pandemic
According to MentalCare the Coronavirus pandemic has brought social isolation to many Malawians, particularly those living alone.
Social isolation is an objective measure, which may or may not lead to the subjective feeling of loneliness.
However, social isolation has the potential for detrimental effects other than loneliness.
There have, for example, been serious concerns about victim of domestic abuse being locked up down with perpetrators as people are encouraged to stay home to protect themselves and others from the deadly pandemic - and this the an unintended impact of stay-home to fight pandemic which urgently needs further action to safeguard those at risk.
Dublin-based Malawian social justice commentator and Mental Health activist, Mayankho Lessa Sande in a separate interview with Nyasa Times said: "The economic impact of Coronavirus has hit the people unequally and unevenly, causing aggravated immediate impacts on mental health and a lot of people are not coping well with the stress of the pandemic."
According to Sande, who is also a banker and an entrepreneur in the Republic of Ireland, in addition to presenting new or enhanced stressors, the Covid-19 pandemic has diminished many of the mechanisms people typically use to cope with stress.
She said: "There is a great need for the Chakwera - Chilima led Tonse Alliance government must give an on mental health issues because it affects many people in the country than any other health issue. Mental well-being of the citizens is what drives the country forward."
Sande, who is popularly known as Onabanda on social media platforms, said while mental health is determined by much broader factors than access to mental health services, these are critical for people experiencing mental illness.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported recently that almost three-quarters of psychiatrists worldwide have seen increases in urgent and emergency cases during the Covid-19.
"There are fears people are staying away until they reach crisis point, which will result in a flood of exacerbated and untreated mental illness after the pandemic," said Sande.
She added: "Failing to invest in mental health during the pandemic risks storing up significant mental and physical health problems for the future - at great human and economic cost."
According to MentalCare, the impacts of the pandemic on mental health could lead to a longer-term erosion of people's physical health, further affecting their ability to lead fulfilling lives.
MentalCare believe that the unequal impacts of the pandemic may lead to a widening of pre-existing health inequalities, as well as affecting people who have not previously experienced poor mental health.
Whilst mental illnesses are recognised as an urgent health challenge, they are often severely neglected, and the people affected are hidden.
Namwaza Banda further said that funding and resources allocated to mental health are almost non-existent in many health systems around the world and Malawi is no exception; 80% of people with mental health problems live in low- and middle-income countries, where fewer than 1 in 5 get any treatment.
"When mental health services do exist, they are often not adequate or appropriate. They are rarely integrated well with other health services, and the stigma attached to mental health issues prevents many people from seeking and accessing services.
"It is a silent epidemic, and those suffering are often not in a good position to demand action, and Malawi needs to change this trend, now," hinted Namwaza-Banda. "If the country is to move forward."
According Mental Health Foundation between one and two in every 100 people in the world experience a severe mental illness, such as bi-polar or schizophrenia, and have periods when they lose touch with reality.
People affected may hear voices, see things no one else sees, hold unusual or irrational beliefs, feel unrealistically powerful, or read particular meanings into everyday events.