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‘A mental health pandemic’: Israeli therapist warns of COVID’s lasting effects

Health officials around the world are seeking to raise awareness on the often-unseen consequences of the global contagion; WHO highlights 25% rise in anxiety and depression

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative. A parent comforts a teenage daughter. (fizkes; iStock)
Illustrative. A parent comforts a teenage daughter. (fizkes; iStock)

COVID vaccines are working and deaths are dropping, but the pandemic’s psychological impact on society is still excruciating.

As World Mental Health Day was observed this week, the global health leadership urged for action to deal with a 25 percent increase in anxiety and depression, and a top Israeli psychologist raised concern that a “mental health pandemic” is underway.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, stated that “in the years prior to the pandemic, the World Health Organization estimated that cases of depression were on the rise.

“Then came COVID-19, which triggered at least a 25% increase in anxiety and depression, with profound social and economic consequences.”

World Mental Health Day, which took place on Monday, marked the launch of a WHO campaign to “make mental health and well-being for all a global priority.”

Ghebreyesus wrote: “While the subject of mental health is generally less taboo than 10 years ago, with CEOs, celebrities, and sports stars increasingly opening up about their own struggles with anxiety and depression, there’s still a long way to go, especially with respect to severe mental health problems such as psychosis.”

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a media conference at an EU Africa summit in Brussels on February 18, 2022. (Johanna Geron/Pool Photo via AP)

In Israel, leading clinical health psychologist Prof. Golan Shahar of Ben Gurion University gave an overview of the situation — and advice for parents — in an interview to The Times of Israel.

“My message is — beware,” he said. “There is a mental health pandemic. Does it affect everyone? No… But the pandemic has generated long-term mental health outcomes.”

The Times of Israel: What is on your mind this week, as we mark World Mental Health Day?

Prof. Shahar: The impact of the pandemic. Has it yielded an increase in mental health problems worldwide? The answer is yes, in a staggering way. Some experts believed the COVID pandemic would be followed by a mental health pandemic, including a spike in anxiety, depression, violence, and other mental health problems. And sadly, they were right.

All of this is very well documented. My message is — beware, there is a mental health pandemic. Does it affect everyone? No. Some are more vulnerable than others. Those who were anxious prior to the onset of COVID-19 have been particularly subject to an increase in anxiety. It affects others too, and has lots of different elements. For example, economic anxiety, while not a widely diagnosed condition, is burdensome. So it’s not affecting everyone, but the pandemic has generated long-term mental health outcomes.

Psychologist Prof. Golan Shahar. (courtesy of Ben Gurion University)

We have seen research on increases in diagnoses. For example, a big data study showed that the number of teenage girls in Israel being diagnosed with depression has nearly doubled since before the pandemic. But do you think that diagnoses are showing the full extent of the problem?

No. Only some of the increase has been detected by teachers, doctors, mental health professionals, and others. To put it differently, unless people are very well trained they are likely to miss many cases of depression, violence, and other problems. Mental health training is more important than ever.

Can you explain about the nature of the difficulties faced by children and teens? Are there still after-effects of lockdowns?

Absolutely. Lockdowns, and the temporary switch from face-to-face contact to the use of Zoom and other electronic means of communication have left an impact on socialization. It’s absolutely a lasting effect. The absence of social interaction at a certain point in time can leave children and teens — even long afterwards — with depression, eating disorders, and even suicidal thoughts. For some, it had a very lasting effect.

Are teachers well-positioned to spot this?

Not always. And even when a teacher may be aware that some of their students are lonely, they are not necessarily aware of how it can escalate into a clinical condition. I have patients who weren’t depressed during COVID waves, but who felt isolated and lonely then, and whose loneliness has since translated to clinical depression.

What could make the education system more effective in spotting issues related to mental health and well-being?

There should be a joint effort by the Health Ministry and Education Ministry to raise awareness in school, among primary health practitioners, and among social workers. The system of school psychologists is understaffed, and there is a need to bring in more school psychologists and to increase training in the field. There should be more training for teachers, especially in tools that are good for detecting and prevention and enabling early intervention.

Many parents will be worried to hear the extent of your concerns. What can they do to best care for their children?

Don’t assume that just because the child appears to not exhibit symptoms of distress they are well. Actively enquire — empathetically — about their well-being. Yes, you may be pushed away, but don’t refrain because of this concern. Understand that even children who push their parents away actually appreciate being approached. So long as it’s done compassionately, parents should feel confident to push through the resistance.

Readers in Israel who have been affected by issues raised in this article are informed that all healthcare providers (HMOs) offer a range of services related to mental health, as do various nonprofits including Eran, the organization dedicated to “emotional first aid.” Details of Eran’s hotline are found here.

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