COVID-19: Worries about pandemic see more calls to mental health helplines

COVID-19: Worries about pandemic see more calls to mental health helplines

depression File photo of a man sitting down and looking depressed side view
File photo of a man sitting on steps in despair. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo) 

SINGAPORE: With so much news circulating about the COVID-19 situation in Singapore, freelance yoga teacher Lim Lishan feels more anxious than usual. While she does not usually have anxiety, she has been experiencing a faster heart rate and shallow breathing more often these days. 

Ms Lim, who was previously diagnosed with type one bipolar disorder and bulimia nervosa, said: “You keep seeing a lot of news and you hear people around you always talking about it, so it does make you feel anxious. 

“And there are a lot of fears in people. I feel like this virus has triggered a sense of uncertainty and insecurity, and made people panic more. I'm more sensitive in nature so I feel that it increases my anxiety level.” 

Ms Lim is just one of the Singaporeans whose mental health has been affected by the COVID-19 situation, feeling anxious and uncertain about the future. 

Calls from new clients to mental health hotlines have gone up, while existing clients have expressed fresh worries about their health and the economic fallout, according to mental health organisations and counsellors CNA spoke to. 

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Worldwide, the number of calls made to mental health hotlines has jumped as well, according to news reports. Calls to US federal crisis hotline Disaster Distress Helpline spiked 891 per cent in March year-on-year, CNN reported. In China, hotlines that sprung up in response to the COVID-19 outbreak were inundated by callers, Reuters said. 

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For digital marketing freelancer Vivien Yap, 24, who experiences depressive symptoms, she did not feel as anxious about the situation as much as she thought she would at first. 

“When it happened, I felt slightly better because it felt like the whole world was on my level … And it really just felt like the whole world was depressed as well, everyone was going through the same uncertainty.”

However, she started feeling more anxious when she received a notice from her employer informing her that her pay would be cut by 25 to 30 per cent, shortly after the circuit breaker measures were announced on Apr 3. 

Ms Yap, who is also a local musician, is in the middle of producing her next music release, and was worried about her expenses. 

“My pay is being cut by 25 to 30 per cent, that’s quite a lot of money, but I still need to support and pay the people who are helping me (with my music). 

“And I don’t want to tell them, ‘hey we’re in tough times can we slow down the payment?’ because I know (for the arts freelancers) it’s really far worse. So that’s when the anxiety kicked in for me.” 

MORE DIALING IN

Suicide prevention agency Samaritans of Singapore’s (SOS) chief executive Gasper Tan said that they received an increase of more than 22 per cent in the number of calls attended to on their 24-hour hotline in March 2020 as compared to that of the same period in 2019.

The Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH) observed an increase in phone calls to several services as well. The SAMH Insight Centre, which provides counselling services, saw an increase in helpline calls by 50 per cent in February and March 2020 compared to the average calls from April 2019 to Jan 2020, it said. 

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Sessions on Fei Yue Community Services’ online counselling portal eC2.sg surged last month, a spokesperson said. The number of chats more than doubled in March this year to 85, after averaging about 40 chats a month in 2018 and 2019. 

According to the various organisations, callers have brought up a range of issues, from their employment prospects - some have lost their jobs, while others will graduate to a potentially bleak employment market - to their increasing fear of catching the invisible pathogen, especially if they were to pass it to their loved ones unknowingly. 

With schools and workplaces shutting down, and restrictions on movements in play, individuals may start to feel a lack of control over their situation as well, leading to more stress that gets harder to manage, said the Fei Yue spokesperson. 

Public areas closed in Singapore COVID-19 circuit breaker
A cordoned-off playground near Block 878A Tampines Street 86. (Photo: Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources)

“The fear, anxiety and the loss of a sense of control over a prolonged period of time can be detrimental to one’s mental health,” added Mr Tan. 

“Being exposed to prolonged stress may be overwhelming to an individual with intense feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness.”

CONTENTS OF DISCUSSION HAVE “SHIFTED DRASTICALLY”

Attendance at some counselling services has been consistent, but some existing clients have been raising issues related to the virus, they say. 

Dr Tracie Lazaroo, a clinical psychologist from Inner Light Psychological Services and LP Clinic, said that the nature of the content within the appointments has “shifted drastically”. 

“The pandemic has affected people in different ways: For some it has given increased anxiety, for others it has created a hyper-vigilance over health-related issues.”

Individuals that are accustomed to a routine and a specific level of socialisation may find it hard to shift their lifestyle patterns, she said, adding that pressure levels among those with mental health conditions may compound as they struggle to adapt to the crisis while dealing with already-present stressors.

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Given that the virus is invisible to the human eye, some people have become paranoid about their safety, she added, producing “an attitude of hypervigilance and overthinking where prolonged fear can negatively impact their mental well-being”.

Youth mental health non-profit Limitless has similarly not seen an uptick in people asking for help, its founder Asher Low said, but their beneficiaries have been expressing unease over factors stemming from COVID-19. 

“Some are genuinely concerned about not being able to get jobs, some are concerned about money, some are concerned about losing family members, quite a few are just very affected by the isolation,” he said. 

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WIM elearning 6
Children may be spending increasingly more time on devices during the circuit breaker as home-based learning gives them the flexibility of time to do so.

COPING WITH CORONAVIRUS FEARS 

To be mentally healthy during this period, be committed about staying connected with friends and family members, the mental health advocates said. 

“Maintaining a strong social connection, either through social media, texts or calls, is as important as prioritising a healthy diet and sleep pattern,” SOS’ Mr Tan said. “This period is also an opportunity to catch up and engage in meaningful conversations with family members.”

And for those who need someone to confide in - there is no shame in reaching out, the counsellors said. There are hotlines to call - including a national one rolled out on Friday - and mental well-being webinars to join.


For example, Brahm Centre has launched daily workout sessions and mindfulness workshops that participants can join either via Facebook Live or Zoom. 

Instead of harping on the constraints, view the ‘circuit breaker’ as a chance to do something meaningful as well, they said, like signing up for a course online, gardening or learning a new recipe.

“Focus on things that are within your control,” Dr Lazaroo said. “It is important to acknowledge your own limits, and do small activities that can improve your self-care and strengthen your resilience.” 

“Practise mindfulness, gratitude, self-compassion and living in the moment.”

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Source: CNA/rp

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