The protracted pandemic has taken a toll on most people’s mental health. But the shock of coronavirus has also contributed to normalising conversations about mental health in society, Arūnas Germanavičius, head of Vilnius Psychiatric Hospital, said in an interview with LRT.lt.
It has been two years since the pandemic began. It has been a time full of uncertainty and anxiety. How has it changed your work?
In 2020, a shock reaction happened. It hit everyone, including professionals, the healthcare system, and, of course, patients. Many people, especially the elderly, stopped going to medical facilities for fear of contracting a virus that we knew very little about at the time […].
Now, patients come to us from other institutions, as we have set up several wards to treat patients with Covid-19 and mental disorders.
Covid-19 itself can be mentally disturbing, especially if a person has respiratory problems and lacks oxygen in the blood. The brain is starved, which can lead to psychotic states, delusions, and hallucinations. Currently, we have around fifteen such patients. Two of them are in very serious condition in intensive care.
The fact that the most severe patients, both with Covid-19 and without, are now coming to us is a reflection of this two-year pandemic period.
At the beginning of the pandemic, psychiatrists said that the real impact of the pandemic would be felt in a year. What is this impact?
Probably that the vulnerability of people, which was suppressed during the pandemic, has now manifested itself in psychiatric disorders, especially depressive reactions.
This has had a very wide-ranging effect, with many people unable to get help, educational institutions closed, normal social interactions and relationships disrupted. These effects started to spread already at the end of 2020.
Also, many people who have had successful addiction treatment have relapsed. We have had a significant influx of people with addictions because of the change in conditions and isolation.
What other types of patients have you been treating during this pandemic period?
Some people are here because they have experienced the death of a loved one due to Covid-19. […] Some of these people, especially the elderly, have become completely lonely, mentally disturbed, depressed, or even demented.
As long as they were in a couple with another person, they were able to function in a healthy way, but suddenly, everything changed.
There are also young patients who have not been able to study well because of the pandemic, as well as problems in the family. Their expectations were higher than their abilities, so they experienced many emotional challenges that they could not overcome […].
These young people are stuck in a state of uncertainty. They live on social networks, never leaving home, without live contact with their peers. For many, the school was the main place of socialisation and self-realisation.
How would you assess the psychological state of society? I am talking about the confrontations, marches, or rallies that turn into riots.
This situation is frustrating for everyone. Not everyone understands these security and control requirements. Many people have a traumatic past of one kind or another and want to do things the way they are used to.
By trying to achieve the quickest possible result in society, we can make some people angry and frustrated. Then they do not listen to the voice of reason but behave in a destructive, even aggressive way both towards others and towards themselves.
The desire to make one's own decisions and to have these decisions respected by others is a sign of insecurity, and it comes in many destructive forms.
Also, some people imagine themselves as individuals, unrelated to others. But in the pandemic, relationships are very important.
Have you noticed any positive consequences of the pandemic?
The challenges of the pandemic have led to an increase in the level of psychological knowledge in society.
Another thing is that the healthcare system now responds very seriously to every request for help from people when they talk about self-harm.
I am surprised, in a good way, that there are no longer stories of indifference when we find out that a person committed suicide because others did not respond to one’s requests for help.
You mentioned that people avoided going to medical facilities for fear of infection. What were the consequences of that?
This was very evident at the beginning of 2021. Many patients with mental illness did not receive the help they needed in time. Families were much more likely to call an ambulance. And then the ambulance and the police used to bring us patients in handcuffs, sometimes aggressive.
Paradoxically, the total number of patients has not increased, but the number of seriously ill patients has risen significantly. This shows that some people are still avoiding seeking help. Some put it off, telling themselves that it will go away.
Could you share some tips on how each of us could improve our wellbeing during the pandemic?
Some general things help even in the face of catastrophic experiences. These are the most important points of support that everyone has in their immediate environment. In my case, it is the family. Other people may have friends, parents, or other close people with whom they can talk and discuss what has happened that day.
Regular reflection is as necessary for everyone as hygiene and showering. Inner cleansing with another person is very important. You cannot do it by yourself. The other person is a yardstick through which you can understand your thoughts, your feelings in a certain situation, assessing whether you did the right thing.
Another thing, in terms of simple tips, is exercise. Even if you are in isolation, you must go for a walk in nature every day.