Coronavirus triggers mental health crisis

The coronavirus pandemic is a public health crisis of an unparalleled magnitude. Around the world, hospitals are filled to capacity and ventilators are in short supply. But the virus has also spawned another type of health emergency. As people have been forced to stay home, cut off from their loved ones, they are increasingly seeking help for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

More people seek psychiatric treatment

A 58-year-old woman, who requested anonymity, says she used to love traveling and going for long walks. But once the coronavirus arrived in Japan, the thought of getting infected and spreading it to family and friends made her too anxious to go outside. By late May, she couldn’t sleep. She visited a clinic in Tokyo and was diagnosed with depression.

“If we lift restrictions while the pandemic is still going on, everyone will go outside and the virus will spread,” she says. “I won’t feel safe until the virus is completely gone.”

Dr. Watanabe Shinya says he has been receiving more patients since the start of the pandemic.

Her psychiatrist, Dr. Watanabe Shinya, says he has been seeing many patients with similar concerns since mid-March. He says they range in age from their 20s to 60s, and are having trouble adjusting to a new lifestyle that requires them to stay at home all day. Add to this the general uncertainty surrounding the economy, and Dr. Watanabe says it’s no wonder that many people are feeling depressed. He adds that it’s important for people to share their concerns, and not just with doctors.

“Not everyone who feels down is able to receive psychiatric help,” he says. “So it’s important they relieve their stress by talking to someone around them.”

More calls, more work

Japanese mental health hotlines have recently been flooded with callers. Tokyo Mental Health Square offers counseling sessions on social media with people across the country. The group says it has seen a 50% increase in clients since March, and now averages 1,500 cases per month.

Many callers are facing financial concerns. Some have had to close their businesses, others have seen drastic wage cuts. The counselors now also have the additional responsibility of helping callers navigate government loan and subsidy programs, helping them apply for the ones that fit their situations.

Mental health counselors hold social media sessions with people across Japan.

Counselors look for relief

Many mental health counselors are also working from home, and the pandemic has proved to be a trying time for them as well. According to Shingyouchi Katsuyoshi, the director of Tokyo Mental Health Square, many counselors are now struggling with the same feelings of loneliness that they are trying to help their patients overcome.

“We are getting more calls now, and many of them are very intense, with clients expressing suicidal thoughts,” says Shingyouchi. “Before, counselors were able to decompress by talking to colleagues at the office in between sessions. But now that they’re working from home, this is difficult.”

To help them cope, Shingyouchi has organized an online session for the counselors that takes place once every few weeks. He says preserving the mental health of counselors is of the utmost importance at a time when their services are more in demand than ever before.

Mental health counselors meet online every few weeks to share their concerns and decompress.

In May, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on member nations to commit to protecting those most vulnerable to mental health issues amid the pandemic. He mentioned children who aren’t allowed to go to school, and the healthcare workers trying to save people from the physical effects of the virus.

It is important to include mental health care workers in this group. They too are putting themselves at risk as they take on heavier caseloads while trying to navigate the same fears and pressures as their clients.