SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, has proven to be a highly infectious and deadly pathogen. But there’s another hidden crisis spreading alongside the virus, the psychological toll of government lockdowns.
Social distancing measures, usually in the form of a lockdown, have been essential to controlling the spread of this virus. Italy was one of the first countries in Europe to implement this strategy, and still has one of the most severe lockdowns seen outside of China. It also has the second-highest death toll after the USA.
This means that some areas of Italy have been unable to leave the house for non-essential reasons since February 21. In urban areas, with many people living alone in small flats, this can have severe impacts on mental health. Providing support for those affected, either by increased levels of stress and anxiety, or more serious issues like depression leading to harmful drug and alcohol use, and increased rates of self-harm and suicide, is starting to become a challenge. In a statement on their website, the World Health Organisation said: “In populations already heavily affected, such as Lombardy in Italy, issues of service access and continuity for people with developing or existing mental health conditions are also now a major concern”.
Italy does not currently have a national system to deal with mental health issues like this, and psychologists are concerned that the country will not be able to cope as the crisis escalates. As the death toll increases, people have to deal with the loss of friends and family members, as well as potential unemployment or financial difficulties caused by the lockdown. All of this is likely to make the mental health crisis last well beyond the end of lockdown measures.
Already mental health helplines are running 24 hours a day and cannot keep up with demand. Food delivery workers say they are providing support to customers. One food bank volunteer said: “They need to talk with somebody, they need to smile with somebody. That’s our most important job; to give a smile.”
Italy has now started a mental health support service, but it is too early to tell whether the country can scale this up fast enough to deal with this parallel crisis.