Ghanaians went about their daily routines smoothly until Thursday, March 13 when the first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the country.
Many hoped that there would be no increase in the number of cases since the confirmed cases were imported from Turkey and Norway. However, the number kept increasing steadily.
Fear and panic gripped many when President Nana Akuffo-Addo announced a ban on social gatherings and closure of all educational institutions for four weeks, beginning March 16 when the total number of cases rose to six.
By the President’s announcement, all religious gatherings, funerals, marriage ceremonies, conferences etc. could not be held or had to be put on hold.
Effects of protocols on social life
Amongst the recommendations to minimize the spread of the virus include the observation of hygienic practices such as hand washing, use of alcohol based-hand sanitizers, social distancing, etc.
The country was locked down on Monday, March 30 which heightened the existing fears. Although these measures have been helpful in the containment of the spread of the Covid-19, disruptions in community and individual activities have implications for mental health.
Firstly, the social distancing policy has brought to halt almost all social engagements such as church services, marriage ceremonies, funerals and all other forms of social gathering.
This has deprived many of the sense of connectedness as they can no longer meet with loved ones and enjoy large group fellowships.
Although some arrangements are in place for online prayer meetings, majority of people cannot access such services due to challenges with internet data cost and reliability.
The usual handshake, body contact, facial expressions and other engagements that are almost always inevitable during face-to-face meetings cannot be experienced through online programmes.
Social distancing has affected the social life of children and adolescents who derive their sense of wellness by mingling with peers.
Majority of the kids stay at home without adult supervision. Besides boredom, they are exposed to social media, internet, and the possibility of rape by preying adults.
Secondly, some Ghanaians have lost their jobs and source of livelihood due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Following the operation “stay home”, most businesses have experienced challenges with some not able to pay salaries.
The hospitality industry, for example have started downsizing since their main revenues are believed to come from foreign visitors.
About 80 percent of Ghanaians work in the informal sector. As such, if the current situation persists, then these individuals will definitely find it difficult supporting their families economically. Conversely, persons in the formal sector with economic power irrespective of social distancing would now have to battle with the psychological impact of the adverse economic effects on the economy.
Finally, the fear of contracting the Covid-19 is a huge psychological burden on the citizenry. Many are desperate to catch up with the latest news on the global pandemic, which requires staying awake sometimes deep into the night.
Support for mental health
However, Ghana’s mental health sector is understaffed and seemingly looks underprepared to address the looming mental health challenges. Some community interventions can, however, help curb the impact of Covid-19 on mental health in Ghana.
Firstly, crisis intervention centres can be set up to help address emotional distress and related mental health challenges; the centres should include counselling service.
The public should also be sensitized on coping strategies to minimize the risk of developing mental health challenges both during and after the pandemic. The radio, TV and newspapers can also support in COVID-19 mental health education. The Mental Health Authority can lead this initiative.
In addition, individuals have a major role to play to maintain sound mental health, and getting connected to others through telephone conversation or social media will help immensely. Exercise regularly, listen to inspiring music, reads books and enjoy your favourite pastime. Keep calm and stay positive at all times and seek help when need be. Taking in a balanced diet with fruits rich in high vitamin C and hydrating enough can also boost the immune system.
Parents should spend time with children and respond to their questions with clear answers. Although the field of Psychology is still relatively new in Ghana it is a valuable addition to our health care system.
In the quarantine and treatment centres across the country, psychologists continue to provide support. More psychologist can be recruited to augment the current numbers.
In conclusion, Covid-19 has the potential to expose large populations in Ghana to diverse mental health problems. The threat of contracting the infection, social isolation and the economic challenges have implications for mental health.
Appropriate national, community and individual interventions can help ameliorate these challenges.
Prof. J.B Asare is a retired Psychiatrist and Dora Awuah is a Clinical Psychologist and founder of the Dora Awuah Foundation.