While calls to the Richmond Foundation’s COVID-19 mental health helpline declined considerably last month, experts point out that anxiety issues have been magnified or triggered by the pandemic and are persisting despite a return to ‘normality’.

Only 115 calls were made in June, compared to 851 in April and 690 in May, and while the drop shows people are coping and have let down their guard, others are still expressing coronavirus concerns and reeling from mental-health repercussions even though restrictions have been lifted.

Over the last few months, fear of cross-contamination and germs had soared not only among those with prior psychological conditions, but also among the public. These may have developed anxiety issues due to the circumstances, said mental health recovery officer Marie Noelle Lanzon, who has been taking calls on the 1770 helpline.

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And OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) patients have been particularly hard hit, with COVID-19 triggering new cases and even aggravating pre-existing conditions, taking them to another level.

“In their eyes, the pandemic has confirmed that they were ‘right’ in believing in and fearing contagion and the possibility of falling ill,” Lanzon concedes.

“One client, for example, already used to wipe down her supermarket shopping every day pre-COVID-19 and would also have the items delivered to avoid going to the shops herself. The outbreak reaffirmed she was ‘right’ in doing so and ‘justified’ her fears.

“This would make it even harder for her to recover and understand her precautions were unnecessary before the outbreak,” she said, adding that her actions would now be taken a step further.

“If this person would have previously ventured to an ATM, now, she would not even step outside the house.”

But debilitating fear has also been instilled in those who have never experienced these concerns, and Richmond Foundation feels COVID-19 has brought about a “pandemic of anxiety” – a mental health pandemic.

“We are now anxious about things that would not have affected us before,” admitted Lanzon, whose own situation has seen her continue to stay away from her elderly parents’ home, which she moved out of to keep on working during the partial lockdown.

They are still being cautious, and she does not want to be responsible for anything.

We need to be careful, but we do not need to be so afraid that it stops us from living

“The truth is COVID-19 has changed us and will remain with us for a long while,” Lanzon warned.

Today, even someone who is not particularly anxious would realise they are doing wrong and stop biting their nails without washing their hands, she said.

Callers suffering from anxiety and seeking emotional support, empathy and tips to contain it are being encouraged to look at the facts, understand the risks, but be realistic.

“We need to be careful, but we do not need to be so afraid that it stops us from living,” she advised, recommending anxiety-controlling techniques such as mindfulness, which helps focus on the here and now, rather than on what could happen.

Callers are receptive to these tips, Lanzon maintained, pointing out that recovery is not impossible.

Psychotherapist Julianne Grima concurred that those suffering from social anxiety, in particular, have just about acclimatised to the new normal of being indoors, and the idea of stepping out into the world is petrifying.

“Nonetheless, it is a necessary step as human contact has a positive impact on anxiety, as do exercise, collegial relationships, friendship, healthy and safe activity that takes people out of their own heads.”

If the middle-aged are struggling to re-find their footing, Grima added, the people they support are also being affected.

Not everyone experiencing health anxiety reported higher levels of psychopathology, according to clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Dorothy Scicluna.

On the contrary, they just felt their insistence on handwashing was now acknowledged.

Instead, from her experience, it was more those suffering from fear of contamination that have resorted to an increase in their hand sanitising and surface cleaning rituals.

Based on her practice, Scicluna is, however, noting what seems to be an increase in eating problems. Many could not resort to the distractions they normally used to ward off thoughts about weight... some developed more bingeing episodes and others restricted themselves even more than usual.

“The best way to tackle mental health unease is to focus on the present, to create a structure, to engage in some form of physical activity, to revisit psychotherapy notes, to remain engaged with life from within the house as much as possible and stay connected to loved ones, even if this means using an online platform,” Scicluna suggests.

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