COVID-19 takes a heavy toll on Saudi residents’ mental health: Study

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Depression and anxiety across Saudi Arabia have soared since the COVID-19 pandemic, with fears over the virus and the fall-out from lockdowns, restricted movement and a lack of social interaction impacting mental health, according to a new study.

Thousands of residents across the Kingdom were contacted at random as part of the newly published study to ask about their psychological well-being pre and post-pandemic.

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More than one in seven people are suffering with a major depressive disorder – a rise of more than 70 per cent since a similar study was conducted in 2018, the study showed.

“As it was increasingly exposed to the COVID-19 disease and its socioeconomical and health consequences, the general population became vulnerable to the psychological impacts of COVID-19,” the study’s co-author Nasser F BinDhim, of Al Faisal University, in Riyadh, noted.

“Psychological distress may have been caused by the restriction of individual movement and social interaction, economic impacts and job loss, fear of getting COVID-19 oneself and/or giving it to loved ones, infection or death of a close individual or loved one due to COVID-19, media and news circulation of stressful information about COVID-19, and more known or unknown factors.”

Published in the European Journal of Psychotrauma, ‘‘Saudi Arabia Mental Health Surveillance System (MHSS): mental health trends amid COVID-19 and comparison with pre-COVID-19 trends’, studied the increase of major depressive disorder (MDD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) since the pandemic.

A nation-wide mental health screening was conducted as part of the study, with 16,513 participants across 13 regions across Saudi Arabia questioned between March and August 2020 about their mental health since the start of the pandemic. All the participants were over the age of 18.

It found that about one in seven (14.9 per cent) of the population was at risk of a major depressive disorder, while 11.4 per cent of the country was at risk of a generalized anxiety disorder.

The results were compared to a similar national study done in Saudi Arabia in 2018 looking at the prevalence of mental health disorders. The risk of depression had increased by 71.2 per cent, between May and August 2020 compared to 2018, the study found.

On March 2, 2020, Saudi authorities reported the first case of COVID-19.

“As COVID-19 continued to spread, the Saudi government enforced many drastic measures, for the first time in many decades, to curb the disease, including partial and 24-hour lockdowns, suspension of religious activities such as prayer in mosques, and Umrah mass gatherings,” the study’s authors said. “Consequently, as in many countries globally, the economic impact of the lockdown affected many businesses in Saudi Arabia, leading to lost jobs or cuts to monthly salaries.”

The results showed that the risks of MDD and GAD are relatively high across Saudi Arabia.

The research project, funded by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), also showed women were significantly more at risk from a depressive disorder. It also showed smokers, those with a chronic health condition, and those with obesity were also at higher risk of depression.

In June, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Health Dr. Tawfiq al-Rabiah warned how the fear of contracting the coronavirus negatively impacts mental health, among the other social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He highlighted, during a virtual discussion titled “Efforts and initiatives of psychological support to combat the impact of the novel coronavirus,” that staying at home as part of the curfews and lockdowns implemented by the Kingdom to curb the spread of COVID-19 resulted in psychological and social side effects which require paying attention to fortifying mental health.

‘A mental health tsunami’

Surging rates of depression since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been recorded worldwide. On Friday, the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the COVID-19 pandemic has caused more “mass trauma” than World War II, adding that the mental health toll of the coronavirus pandemic will last “for many years to come.”

“Almost the whole world is affected, each and every individual on the surface of the world actually has been affected.”

International SOS, a health and security services company, conducted a survey in late 2020 and described a “mental health tsunami” sweeping across the globe, following the pandemic.

Dr Sawsan Humaida, a specialist in internal medicine at Bareen Hospital, in the United Arab Emirates, told Al Arabiya English that a rise in depression and anxiety has been witnessed across the GCC and wider world since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The doctor said working from home and in isolation has created psychological impacts for people across the globe, leaving people at increased risk of suffering from anxiety, depression and stress, while the effects of recurrent lockdowns, fears about the effectiveness of the vaccines, restricted movements, and the bleak economic outlook are taking their toll on mental well-being.

“The sudden change in lifestyle following the pandemic has caused many people to feel estranged from their daily lives including not being able to go to work or school and even grocery shopping without experiencing fear and paranoia.

“Furthermore, staying at home for prolonged periods during the national lockdown has shown increased percentage of depression and anxiety within the population inherent from drastic change in routine and lack of socialization."

COVID-19 itself can lead to neurological and mental complications, such as delirium, agitation and higher risk of stroke, she said.

“The WHO stated that, a survey of 130 countries showed global data regarding the devastating impact of COVID-19 on access to mental health services as well as the pandemic is an increased demand for mental health services.”

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