How China is fighting a mental health battle borne from the coronavirus outbreak

  • Video report by ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward

When tens of thousands of soldiers were making their way to the frontline in Wuhan to engage in a war against Covid-19, in Beijing hundreds of psychologists were being mobilised to fight the mental health battle they saw coming.

City after city was put in lockdown and China rolled out the most extreme travel restrictions and quarantine measures the world had ever seen.

Millions of families found themselves separated or forced under one roof for weeks, then months on end.

The first of more than 600 dedicated helplines nationwide opened on February 2, 2020, and was immediately inundated with calls.

At that time people were mostly worried about getting the virus, and about their loved ones from whom they had been isolated.

  • Fan Xinrui is one of the call handlers offering psychological support to those stuck at home across China:

As the days and weeks have gone by the stresses and strains have extended into family relations and financial worries.

In many cases salaries have gone unpaid, jobs have been lost and businesses have gone under.

Dealing with that while confined to your house, with the threat of a new, and potentially deadly virus, has placed people under huge psychological pressure.

Even new parents were separated from their newborns to minimise the risk of spreading the virus.

With schools closed, parents have also had to take on the role of teacher.

Guiding frustrated and anxious children through online classes and trying to create some form of routine and structure in this new way of living in lockdown.

For those with babies and toddlers it has been a challenge to entertain and protect them while trying to limit the disruption to their development caused by being unable to go out to the park, or for a walk on the street, or interact with other children.

A woman and a child wearing protective face masks walk by as a masked man have a suntan at a public park in Beijing. Credit: AP

Beyond the anecdotal surveys on divorces and pregnancies forecast to result from this prolonged period of social isolation, there are serious concerns about the long-term impact it will have on how people interact, and particularly in areas like Hubei, the potential for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Head of Psychology at Tsinghua University, Dr Peng Kaiping, has told us they have already had calls from people experiencing the severe depression and distress symptoms usually associated with PTSD.

  • Dr Peng Kaiping outlines the PTSD symptoms already reported following the lockdown:

As in war, thousands of people have lost their lives, millions have been displaced and the virus has created a sense of paranoia and fear.

He talked of people expressing a sense of loss, helplessness and anxiety.

He said it is likely many people will struggle to re-engage in society, and they could face some sort of social resentment.

Dr Peng also pointed out that the impact of any lockdown in the United Kingdom could be deeper.

In the UK we have a more individualistic society, we tend to be more sociable and more independent.

Many people will therefore struggle to accept and adapt to life without social interaction.

  • Chris Hill is living under lockdwon in Wuhan with his wife, daughter, and parents-in-law:

It is also something new for us to experience our Government and our cherished National Health Service unable to cope in the face of such an enormous and immeasurable challenge.

He believes seeing them struggle, as other countries including China have done, can generate a lack of confidence and alarm.

Borne out in the most obvious way by the panic buying there has been at supermarkets.

Britain is entering a medical war and a mental health battle. If there is a key to winning both it appears to be with the help and support of one another.

  • ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edwardlived through the stringent measures enforced in Beijing:

Whether it's the sharing of information between doctors in Wuhan and Italy or the sharing of feelings with a loved one or friend stuck in isolation at home.

Our borders maybe closed and our cities shut down, but our many forms of communication, our hearts and minds can and should remain open.

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