Updated: Dec 4, 2020
World Mental Health Day is held every year on the 10th October to raise awareness of mental health and to gain an understanding and improve attitudes around mental health illnesses. Although there is a lot more awareness of mental health issues, there is still a lack of knowledge around the correlation between mental and physical health.
As the world is gripped by a pandemic, mental health experts have cautioned that there may be another epidemic occurring behind closed doors. Fear, worry and emotional distress are reasonable reactions to higher levels of uncertainty and the threat of Covid-19. On top of the fear of contracting the virus there are also added concerns about the way the world has changed and how our lives have been affected. As people try to keep their communities safe by following their government’s guidelines, the isolation many are facing due to Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on the importance of looking after our mental health, as well as our physical health, and the power of communication through the company of others.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has only exacerbated what was already a serious problem. One in every four people are expected to be affected by mental health issues at some stage in their life and mental health crises could cost the global economy up to $16 trillion from 2010 to 2030. Although everyone is experiencing the current crisis in some way, not everyone is experiencing it in the same way. Some may be more vulnerable during the pandemic, such as those struggling with loneliness, addiction issues, existing mental health issues and those who have experienced trauma previously.
At CoMO, we are often in contact with people who have had some kind of experience of meningitis, a serious disease that can take a life in under 24 hours or result in severe after effects. Meningitis can be a life-changing disease and so it can also affect the mental health of the person who’s contracted the disease, as well as their loved ones. As everyone’s experience of meningitis is different and personal, so is how it affects mental health.
Invisible but impactful
Meningitis can be an emotionally devastating disease, regardless of the outcome. People who have personally experienced meningitis sometimes report depression and anxiety as after effects. This may result from having experienced a potentially deadly disease with a range of impacts, some of which can be severe and permanent. Even for survivors who make a full recovery, the disease can be life changing and there is no return to “normal”. Feeling sad or anxious is normal and usually passes quite quickly but when someone is depressed or has anxiety these feelings persist and can greatly affect someone’s quality of life. For instance, someone struggling with anxiety may start to suffer from panic attacks and/or health anxiety, which is when someone constantly worries about their health or the health of a loved one.
Depression, anxiety and intense mood changes can also be the result of acquired brain injury (ABI) caused by meningitis. ABI is an injury to the brain caused after birth and can particularly affect child survivors of meningitis as it takes 20 years for the brain to develop. Changes caused by ABI can take many years, whilst also struggling through adolescence, until they are noticed and so it can be very hard to link the cause – meningitis – with memory loss, behavioural changes, difficulties in concentrating, planning and executing tasks. This may understandably be very frustrating for the person affected and those around them, particularly if they do not know why they’re facing certain struggles. Being aware of how meningitis may affect someone in the long-term can help change perceptions so that survivors can receive the appropriate support and their families can understand why their loved one is not the same person as before they were diagnosed. These perceptions can be so hard to change because depression, anxiety and ABI are all examples of invisible disabilities, which risk people who aren't aware of their impacts to minimise them.
It is also common for mental health issues to extend beyond the individual as those close to them also suffer. 1 in 5 people who contract bacterial meningitis dies and that loss is incalculable. For a bereaved loved one, the grief process after losing someone to meningitis may be one of the hardest things they have to go through.
What could help?
Many find it helpful to talk about how they feel with someone they trust. If you’re in a country where, as per your government’s guidelines, you have to keep your distance from others, being physically distant does not mean having to be emotionally distant. Social ties are more important than ever and a short phone call or video chat with someone you love may help improve your day and theirs. In addition, the power of nature should not be underestimated. If your country guidelines allow you to safely take a walk, try to get outside at least once a day. Being outside and hearing the birds sing, or taking a walk in woodland or your local area is a grounding exercise and is known to increase your mental health.
Spending more time doing things that make you happy and trying to find more balance in your life can help to minimise feelings of anxiety. For instance, while it is important to be aware of national and local government guidelines on the disease, being overexposed to coverage of the virus can feel overwhelming. Rumours can help fuel anxiety so getting your news from trustworthy sources that are: current, supported by evidence and confirmed by other sources, can also help. ‘Fake news’ can be extremely harmful, not only for people who are already worried about the pandemic, but for those considering their safety plans, or suffering from health anxiety.
Instead of focusing on distressing current events that we have little control over, it can be helpful to take stock of what we do have control over. Everyone can take just a few easy actions to make sure we support our health and even be public health heroes; we can make sure we’re regularly washing our hands for at least 20 seconds, we can stay physically distanced, we can make sure we’re up-to-date with our immunisations and we can try to introduce routines to safeguard our mental health.
It is however important to know when to ask others for help because no one can get through this alone. If you’re worried about your physical health and Covid-19, your government should have offered some guidance on what to do if you’re experiencing certain symptoms. While Covid-19 has dominated the discussion on health, other infectious diseases like meningitis have not gone away. If you’re worried you’re displaying the symptoms of meningitis, it is vital to go to the hospital as soon as possible so you can be diagnosed and treated.
For your mental health, you can lean on your loved ones but there may also come a time where you could benefit from professional advice and support. A phone call with a doctor or therapist could help set you on the right track. For those suffering with loneliness and isolation, you can turn to charities that offer befriending support and a listening ear. If current events are particularly triggering for you because of a previous experience of a serious illness, see if you can contact a patient group near you. If you or someone you know has experienced meningitis and/or sepsis please do feel free to get in touch if you would like to connect with a group near you.
“As we all become used to living and working in a different way, and we navigate this unprecedented time in our lives, it has never been more important to practice self-care, look after your mental health and your physical health. Do not put pressure on yourself to feel a certain way, take each day as it happens and most importantly reach out for support if you need it.” – Cat Shehu, Support and Membership Manager at the Meningitis Research Foundation.
Links for more information and support
Tips on staying #HealthyAtHome, curated by the WHO.
Learn about the after effects of meningitis and sepsis
Learn the signs and symptoms of meningitis
Find a CoMO member that may be able to offer their support near you
To chat online with someone, you can visit the Meningitis Research Foundation’s website. In the bottom right-hand corner there is a purple “Chat live with us” tab that will put you in touch with someone.
 https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-health-mental-global/mental-health-crisis-could-cost-the-world-16-trillion-by-2030-idUKKCN1MJ2QN  file://mrf-fs1.meningitis.org/Profile%20Data/User%20Profile/nadiav/Downloads/Emotional-and-behavioural-effects-of-acquired-brain-injury-August-2017%20(3).pdf