Over the next three months, more than 1,750 cases were identified and nearly 300 people died from the disease – SARS mortality in Hong Kong reached a staggering 17 percent.
Princess Margaret Hospital became a dedicated SARS response facility, and Dr. Lily Chiu was the plant’s CEO.
She says the hospital at its peak admitted up to 100 patients a day, with the number of beds in intensive care tripled in the first week.
“Everything happened really fast, it was really like a tsunami. We had not before been exposed to such a great attack of a very contagious disease. ”
The staff worked around the clock, many did not return home for several weeks at a time.
It was their mental health that became a major concern for Dr. Chiu.
She arranged accommodation for employees at risk of contracting the disease, organized the delivery of groceries to their families, and set up mental health programs for those working in the front line.
“To make them feel like they don’t have to feel lonely, isolated that they were just put in the front line to fight and die,” she says.
Studies later found that more than 10 percent of those who worked in the SARS outbreak or were affected by the disease showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder several years after the incident.
Dr. Chiu says there was supportive camaraderie during the relatively short SARS outbreak, a camaraderie she fears has been lacking during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And health experts in the field agree; COVID-19 is a much larger animal when it comes to psychological consequences.
Professor Richard Bryant is the Director of the Traumatic Stress Clinic at the University of New South Wales. He says the length of the COVID-19 pandemic with its recurring shutdowns and economic burdens means that tolls on mental health will be widespread.
“If we look at countries that are ahead of Australia in terms of vaccinations and easing of restrictions, we also see there that anxiety and depression are actually rising as well as suicide rates.”
Melbourne resident Spiros Vasilakis says he deals with anxiety attacks every time he hears the daily COVID-19 case numbers.
“Mentally, it really sets you back. It’s traumatic, it’s traumatic, it just does not give up, you try to move on, and you just can not do it. ”
He lost his mother to COVID-19 early in the pandemic, in July 2020, when the virus infiltrated her nursing home.
Source: Delivered / Spiros Vasilakis
In the weeks that followed, he also got covid-19 along with his wife and sister.
They are now all living with ongoing health consequences of the virus and trauma to be affected by COVID-19 on several levels.
“But mentally it has emptied me. I tried to go back to work. I just was not in the mind to actually participate, ”says Vasilakis.
Melbourne GP Stacey Harris says that before COVID-19 she would see a handful of patients seeking mental health support every week, but now she says it’s almost every deal.
“I can not refer anyone to a psychiatrist; most of them have closed their books. So the cases that are really cross-border, the only option is to go to the hospital. ”
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that one in five people in Australia report high or very high levels of mental distress associated with the pandemic. In Victoria, the statistics are even higher with 27 per cent of the population struggling to cope.
A recent study by ABS showed that each increase in COVID-19 leads to greater psychological consequences, with the recent Victorian outbreak leading to almost a third of people reporting emotions associated with depression and anxiety.
The most affected are women (23 per cent), younger Australians (30 per cent) and those with pre-existing mental illness (48 per cent).
Dr. Harris says in his experience that the psychological consequences of the virus do not decrease when the number of cases decreases.
“Things went back to normal January or February, but I still saw people who did not get help last year with lockdowns and said, ‘I know it’s by now, but I really suffer, I really suffered last year in lockdowns, and that just kept going. ‘”
Mental health experts predict that a significant proportion of Australia’s population will be left with the psychological consequences of COVID-19, with some estimates putting the figure as high as 20 per cent.
Professor Bryant says Australia has the benefit of observing countries such as the UK that are further ahead in assessing the pandemic’s legacy of mental health.
“Every fourth person still reports significant loneliness, and that will be a problem because people will not go back to the life they had before COVID. We will still have many restrictions in place, many people’s plans have been disrupted; schooling, university, career, relationships – these do not bounce back overnight. ”
He recommends that people try to learn new skills and new mechanisms to move forward.
UNSW, in collaboration with the World Health Organization, has set up a new mental health treatment program consisting of group video conferencing sessions with a clinical psychologist covering skills to deal with stress and worries resulting from the pandemic.
The approach focuses on increasing positive moods, with trials showing positive results for improved mental health outcomes.
Professor Bryant says now is the time to establish sustainable and accessible mental health programs to ensure Australia has a psychological roadmap out of COVID-19.
World Mental Health Day is celebrated on Sunday 10 October.
Readers seeking mental health support can contact Beyond Blue at 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.au. Embracing multicultural mental health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.