Bill Gates warned us that it was coming. Five years ago, Microsoft’s co-founder and multi-billionaire warned the world about an impending global pandemic during a Ted Talk, which has now amassed over three billion views worldwide. In the talk titled “The next outbreak? We’re not ready.”, Gates discussed the lessons learnt from Western Africa’s 2014 Ebola crisis and declared that international governments were not prepared for the foreseeable pandemic that would hit them.
Sadly, Bill Gates was right. On January the 5th, 2020, the COVID-19 virus was officially declared a global healthcare level threat by the World Health Organisation and now almost two years in, we are not yet clear of this one-in-a-generation global contagion.
So, if Gates was right the first time when should expect the next pandemic?
Unfortunately, it is bad news for us……. The next pandemic is here already and unfortunately, we don’t have any vaccines or monoclonal antibody therapy to fight it. The death rates that come with it will be higher than COVID 19, and social distancing or lockdowns will only make it worse. Because this time the cause is not an infective viral disease, it’s a mental health pandemic.
And just because this pandemic is not caused by an infection, it doesn’t mean that it won’t be more devastating if we don’t deal with it in time.
What are the common mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, there has been an exponential increase in the number of mental health problems reported over the past 18 months. An investigation conducted by Statista showed that the percentage of adults living in the United States displaying symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder tripled between 2019 and 2020, increasing from 11% to 42.4%.
So what does mental health got to do with a viral infection? You never hear of it this issue when it’s influenza season.
Quite simply, this COVID 19 pandemic has been longer, harder, and far more damaging than we could ever have imagined. Although whilst people like Bill Gates have said that should have been prepared for such events, even they could not have predicted the severity of this once-in-a-generation pandemic.
Similarly, the mental health effects of COVID 19 are also more profound than usual and can even affect those who don’t actually contract the virus. The devastating problem with mental illness is that, unlike other medical conditions, it does not just affect the one person, but also has a knock-on effect on those around them, especially close family members. In this regard, it is more “infectious” than the virus itself. A WHO report suggests that mental health issues play a part in the death of over 40% of individuals and those with mental health disorders tend to die 5 years earlier than those not afflicted.
From an individual standpoint, COVID can have several ways to exert its effect on mental health. Firstly, just contracting the virus can cause the patient to feel stigmatized especially if they pass it on to family or friends. The sense of harming a loved one especially if it causes the death of that person will have a devastating effect on the person’s psyche.
Secondly, if the patient develops severe symptoms of COVID, especially for those who need intensive care, they will be forced, for maybe the first time, to face their own mortality. The elation of survival can be quickly replaced with the horrors of the near-death experience, similar to those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Finally, the COVID 19 virus can have long-lasting medical effects for those who do contract the virus. From research so far, up to 1 in 3 people who have contracted COVID described experiencing lethargy, persisting pains as well lingering neurological and cognitive symptoms such as difficulty thinking and fumbling over simple words. Whilst it appears that most eventually will “shake off” these effects, it is believed that for a small number, this may become a chronic condition. The loss of self-worth associated with this, for the individual, is incalculable.
These effects have been even worse for members of the healthcare profession. Faced with the initial unknown nature of the pandemic and the lack of adequate protective equipment, frontline medical workers have been described as “ being on their knees” in response to the crisis by media representations, with many warning us of an even worse mental health epidemic amongst the frontline healthcare workforces.
For the most part, healthcare workers are psychologically resilient professionals highly trained to deal with death and loss. But the elevated death toll, mental and physical burnout from working overtime, and the constant stress on their own safety and the people around them have undoubtedly placed healthcare workers at additional risk for developing mental health problems. The magnitude of the sacrifices made daily by these dedicated people will not be without consequences. In fact, prior to the pandemic, this group was recognized as having the highest rates of stress, mental burnout, drug and alcohol dependence and high suicide rates. Large numbers of individuals working long-term in the NHS have quit their jobs and the loss of this talent will need time and resources to replace.
From a family standpoint, COVID has created a different, but no less devastating effect on mental health. One of the most direct manifestations of this is due to the infective nature of COVID 19. Many relatives have been unable to comfort, personally care for or be able to be at the last moment of a loved one that unfortunately lost their battle with the virus. Being able to care for and say goodbye to a family member can be a great help in the grieving process. Being robbed of this “sense of closure” is likely to make the grieving process harder and further increase the mental burden on surviving family members.
Lockdown itself has caused a number of interpersonal issues. The rates of domestic violence, separations and divorce filings have skyrocketed over the past 18 months. Families who were able to co-exist happily with each other during a normal routine found themselves unable to tolerate each other when they have to be together 24/7. Physical violence both for the victim and the perpetrator can carry a high mental toll and the ensuing separation and divorce is likely to widen the psychological damage to the entire family unit, especially the children. If unresolved, these children could potentially carry the scar of this trauma into their own adult lives and perpetuate this trauma for the next generation.
With the global lockdown has come the massive global recession which has hit world economies and the financial status of everyone around the world. Many people have lost their jobs and with it their financial stability and self-esteem. It is well known that depression and unemployment go hand in hand and with millions out of a job, this has added further to the mental health burden of those affected.
So how do we deal with this?
The difficulty in tackling this mental health pandemic is the common misconception that most believe “it won’t affect me”. Most sufferers will be in denial that they have a mental health problem. But the first step in dealing with any problem is to first admit that there is one.
So, in order for any solutions put in place to be fully effective, responses from local, nationwide, and worldwide representations must be called on to collectively decide on how best we can educate the public about the current pandemic on our mental health and come up with strategies to tackle the inevitable mental health crisis coming our way. Without public education, those affected just will not recognize that they have a problem.
Given that the majority of psychological cases will be dealt with by emergency first-responders and frontline healthcare workers with relatively low experience in mental health, many cases may be missed at the patient’s first time of contact with the medical profession.
The creation of specific guidelines must be set out by health departments and governments to help all first responders and frontline healthcare workers seamlessly diagnose, care for, and treat patients with psychological illnesses. Increasing direct access to mental health care professionals and informing the public how they can do so will also help to reduce the number of those who “slip through the net”.
Healthcare workers, teachers and governments are well-positioned to support students, patients, and the general public during this trying time. Simple solutions such as offering stress management and coping methods to the public/ students at schools should be put into effect as soon as possible. Increasing the availability of walk-in appointments with a mental health specialist in schools and workplaces will also help decrease the number of undiagnosed mental illnesses and new psychological problems being developed.
Addressing the social stigma associated with such illnesses must be another first step taken by governmental bodies, influencers and people in higher positions when tackling this crisis. People suffering and living with mental health issues should stop feeling ashamed of their condition and speak out about their own experiences to inspire others to see mental health specialists if needed.
As for hospital staff and health departments, there are a number of strategies they can implement, to ensure that patients in their wards are as well-supported as possible. For example, panic-inducing news channels constantly bombarding us with statistics on death tolls and the pandemic should be turned off. The staff can instead encourage patients to engage in mindful activities such as reading, solving puzzles and non-strenuous exercise. It is important that nurses who have direct contact with patients try to understand the world from their patient’s perspectives and tailor their care accordingly.
For better or for worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed us, the people around us and the world around us. But as we come closer to reaching herd immunity and a possible end to the COVID 19 pandemic, it is paramount that, more than ever, we do not turn a blind eye to the mental health crisis brewing just beneath the surface.
Dealt with wrongly, the mental health pandemic could be more devastating than the COVID pandemic we are facing now.
1. Business Insider. 2021. Mental health problems to be next pandemic after COVID-19 crisis, says study. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2021].
2. Dias, M. and Bunn, S., 2021. Mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on adults. [online] POST. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2021].
3. Mind.org.uk. 2021. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2021].
4. Governmentevents.co.uk. 2021. Flattening a Different Curve: A Blueprint for Covid-19 Recovery? – Government Events. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2021].
5. Daily Maverick. 2021. Sponsored Content: Is Mental Health the next pandemic?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2021]