The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on the mental health of South Africans, with many suffering from the aftermath of trauma.
Aphiwe Gwala from KwaZulu Natal still experiences feelings of grief and loss after losing her grandmother to the coronavirus in October last year. “Some days I just cry. I still experience a lot of anxiety and a deep sense of sadness has stayed with me,” said Gwala.
“One day she was fine, and then the next day she tested positive for the coronavirus. Her situation was critical because she had diabetes, and only stayed in hospital for a week before passing away. I still can’t help but to break down when I think about it because COVID-19 came out of nowhere and took someone away from me,” she said.
Gwala, 19, is currently studying towards a degree in Accounting. She wishes she had the opportunity to make her grandmother proud while she was still alive.
“My grief still puts me in a dark place because I feel like my soul has been crushed. I really loved her and wish I had more time with her,” she said.
When her mother contracted the virus a few weeks later, she was in a constant state of panic and fear. “Could my mother be next?” – is a question that tortured Gwala during that time.
Gwala said she is now being more patient with herself and her feelings while using coping mechanisms prescribed to her by her doctor.
How we deal with trauma
Liane Lurie, a clinical psychologist, works with individuals, families, children, and adolescents across a range of psychological struggles. She says ‘when confronted with an event perceived as traumatic, our brain shifts gears into a fight or flight response in order to ensure survival.’
For some individuals, the trauma response may lessen in severity over time, whereas for others they may constantly feel as though they function in a perpetual state of hypervigilance, experiencing intrusive memories and flashbacks, causing an exaggerated startled response.
“This may also depend on the previous history of traumas, as well as the presence of anxiety and depression and level of support available in the aftermath”, Lurie explained.
#CMFConf2021 @ProfPaulGilbert "We should stop overmedicalising people's normal reaction to stress and instead promote social connectedness, shared experiences, and safeness". Incredible session on COVID-19 that highlighted the links between trauma, tragedy, and grief. pic.twitter.com/0Tcb8hwbc3
— Alina Pavlova 🇺🇦🙏 (@AliPvlova) October 12, 2021
Trauma and the brain
For Nelly Masuku* from the Eastern Cape, being sick with COVID-19 was a ‘near-death experience’. Masuku said that going to the hospital was not an option because she was afraid that she would not make it back.
“I could not focus on myself because my cousin was in a coma at the time with COVID-19. Having to be reliant on friends and family to drop off essentials was also stressful for me because I had to be dependent on them, which eventually caused conflict,” Masuku explained.
“I never used to watch a lot of TV before I contracted the virus, and afterward I watched even less. The virus symbol constantly flashed before my eyes, I saw it move in the air; a red ball with spikes. It looked like a monster that I imagined had taken my body over, attacking me from the inside. I had nightmares where I saw that symbol and felt an intense feeling of fear,” she added.
More than a year since she was diagnosed, Masuku still feels that the road to recovery is going to be very long, with the symptoms lingering. Long-COVID can be understood as the lasting symptoms of COVID that someone who has recovered still experiences.
Masuku still has trouble breathing and occasionally feels a weight in her chest that reminds her of the difficulties she faced when ill.
“My memory has been the most affected because I still forget to do the most simple things and complete the most simple work tasks. There are a few pots that have burned because I sat in the lounge and simply forgot about them. I am still very tired and have to take naps during the day just to get through,” she said.
Talking about trauma can be healing
Lurie advised that talking about the trauma with someone you trust can very often provide a means of therapy to deal with your experiences. She said that psychologists, counsellors and social workers trained in trauma-related work can provide a space in which to process the trauma and also provide coping mechanisms when difficult emotions arise.
“Depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and helplessness as a sense of a foreshortened future are all common responses to trauma. These are ultimately “normal or expected” responses to an abnormal set of circumstances. If the person is experiencing severe forms of anxiety such as panic attacks, medical intervention may be required. This may help mediate the impact on sleep, concentration and day-to-day functioning.” Lurie said.
Department unaware of added burden
National Department of Health spokesperson, Foster Mohale, said that the department is not aware of an increase in the number of patients who have used healthcare services for their mental health.
“Health information data shows that there has been no added pressure in terms of numbers of people that are seeking mental health services in the public health services. Data collected shows that there has not been an increase in the number of people that were seen by our primary health facilities and hospitals’ outpatient departments for a period of April 2020 to March 2021 when compared to the same period in 2019 to 2020. There was also no increase in admissions for mental health problems during this time,” he said.
Foster added that the department has prioritised mental health services as one of the essential services during COVID-19. It has increased the human resource capacity for mental health services, provided psychological support for public sector health care workers, and issued guidelines on mental health services to support facilities. – Health-e News