Lockhart: Mental health impact of COVID-19 ‘significant’

Mental Health Commission Chairman Dr. Marc Lockhart addresses the Alex Panton Foundation's 4th Annual Youth Mental Health Symposium at the Ritz-Carlton on Saturday. Photo: Reshma Ragoonath

Local health experts say the mental health impact of COVID-19 on the Cayman Islands community is “significant” – even as scientific data continues to be collected.

“Viktor Frankl said that an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior. So what we’re going to be looking for as the norm over the next 18 to 24 months or so is a lot of dysfunction. How severe that dysfunction is going to be… I don’t want to be an alarmist… we will find out,” Mental Health Commission Chairman Dr. Marc Lockhart said as he addressed the Alex Panton Foundation’s 4th Annual Youth Mental Health Symposium Saturday.

However, Lockhart said he’s confident the country will not be defeated by the challenges ahead.

“We are a very resilient community. It’s in our history… it’s in our DNA. It’s in our cultural ethos, and I have a lot of faith in our community to overcome,” he said.

Cayman is in the midst of change, he said.

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“We’re facing an unprecedented global situation with numerous idiosyncratic factors. People are being affected in many different ways.”

Speaking on the topic Youth Challenges and Resilience amid COVID-19, Lockhart said apart from the physical and phycological effects, there are social and economic problems that also weigh on people’s minds.

Pointing to Minister of Finance Roy McTaggart, who was seated in the audience, Lockhart said the minister has done an “expert job” and understands the economic and social challenges Cayman is in and is going to face moving forward.

Mental Health Commission Chairman Dr. Marc Lockhart. Photo: Reshma Ragoonath

“Decisions are going to have to be made. Sacrifices are going to have to be made. But we’re learning as we go and we’re all moving in the right direction. We require patience, understanding,” he said.

Governor Martyn Roper addressed the symposium, agreeing that 2020 has been a challenging year for everyone, but especially for young people.

He said the Foundation is doing surveys for data analysis to determine that impact, which will be insightful to paint a picture of the effects.

Cayman has come together as a community, and Roper believes residents need to show more kindness, not just at home, but particularly on social media.

That point was echoed by Health Minister Dwayne Seymour, who shared the attacks he’s been subjected to online.

“It hurts,” Seymour said.

Foundation Chairperson Jane Panton commended government for its handling of the pandemic, and maintaining Cayman’s bubble.

She said the lockdown had an impact on the mental health of children. The Foundation has introduced programmes to help those feeling the pressure of the pandemic, including opening youth support groups.

Quarantine and mental distress

Many are struggling with mental health challenges arising from mandated quarantine, Lockhart said in his presentation, which looked at the implications of COVID-19 responses locally.

“I’ve probably had at least 10 severe cases… over the past year of young people that return to island and had challenges dealing with being isolated… having issues with agoraphobia (an anxiety disorder that makes people very fearful of certain places and situations), panic attacks, severe anxiety, extreme nausea, and inability to sleep at night,” he said, adding that being confined for between three to 14 days really impacted them.

Some people have mild post traumatic symptoms, he said.

While Lockhart hastened to add that he is not suggesting putting a stop to quarantine, as “we have to do that to survive,” the mental health expert said some of the measures have side effects.

He said frontline workers are facing difficulties of their own and should not be forgotten in the discussion about mental health.

“It takes a lot of energy and we’re really at our maximum right now in terms of what we’re managing,” he said.

A cross-section of those in attendance at the Alex Panton Foundation’s 4th Annual Youth Mental Health Symposium. Photo: Reshma Ragoonath

Lockhart said students who were studying aboard and are now separated from their social safety network due to restrictions, increased screen-time at odd hours for distance learning also creates a cocktail of sorts for mental health challenges for Cayman’s youth.

“This has caused dietary changes because when you are waking up at two or three o’clock in the morning to take the class, I don’t know what kind of breakfast you’re going to eat at that time. I don’t know how your day is going to change,” he said.

He said it was key to note that parental stress and the parental reaction to the pandemic “has a significant impact on the young people in the home.”

However, Lockhart said the community has demonstrated a healthy appreciation for science, and that will auger well as the country moves ahead to meet the mental health challenges.

“There are too many communities, too many other countries that fought science, went against what science says in terms of wearing masks, in terms of using physical distancing, in terms of isolating when we needed to,” he said, adding: “We made the sacrifices and we are looking right now at the positive benefits.

“If we’re able to do that, we are also able to address the mental health challenges that we have in our community and we will overcome.”

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