Increased Depression, Heart Attacks Linked to Pandemic
Depression-related cases have increased by 24% in South Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to financial services provider Discovery Health, which handles claims for 2.7 million people.
Similarly, heart attack risk has been 1.5 times higher across the country compared to pre-pandemic levels. Patients who were hospitalized for coronavirus were 3.5 times more likely to have a heart attack, Dr. Ronald Whelan, chief commercial officer at Discovery Health, said in a report by South African newspaper Guardian & Mail.
Officials presented the data at the Hospital Association of South Africa’s annual conference. They also discussed the country’s National Health Insurance, a proposed financing system designed to pool money to offer quality, affordable health services.
Advocates called on the country to invest more in mental health services.
“The biggest issue at the moment is that our mental health policy has expired” in 2020, Crick Lund, an honorary professor of public mental health at the University of Cape Town, said in the Mail & Guardian report. “Nothing has happened since then, which is concerning. There’s been a massive impact on health care providers because of the extra Covid-related burdens they carried and are still carrying.”
The increase of depression and heart attacks during the pandemic is a global trend, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). During the pandemic’s first year, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, the organization reported in March.
“The information we have now about the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said in a news release. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”
Social isolation, unemployment, fear of infection, and grief were cited as common triggers for depression during the pandemic.
According to the WHO, young people became disproportionately at risk of suicidal or self-harming behaviors during the pandemic. Women generally have been more severely affected than men, while people with preexisting health conditions, such as asthma, cancer and heart disease, were more likely to develop symptoms of mental disorders.
People with preexisting mental disorders do not seem to be disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. However, when those people contract the disease, they are more likely to require hospitalization or die, according to the WHO.
The WHO has urged countries to scale up investments in mental health service. In 2020, governments worldwide spent just more than 2% of their health budgets on mental health and many countries reported having less than one mental health worker per 100,000 people.
“While the pandemic has generated interest in and concern for mental health, it has also revealed historical under-investment in mental health services,” Dévora Kestel, the WHO’s director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Use, said in a news release. “Countries must act urgently to ensure that mental health support is available to all.”
Not only has COVID-19 increased the prevalence of depression and heart attacks, but common side effects for Discovery Health clients 18 months after initial infection include headaches, insomnia, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and muscle weakness.