Under the COVID-19 pandemic, psychological health of Hong Kong people have been negatively impacted by increased perceived health risks, reduced social interaction, and subsequently increased time spent at home.
The School of Nursing at the University of Hong Kong compared the stress levels and depressive symptoms of Hong Kong adults across 2016, 2017 and April 2020 through telephone surveys.
Researchers found that the overall stress levels during COVID-19 was higher than that of 2016 and 2017 by 28%, anxiety became more prevalent by 42%, and depression symptoms and unhappiness had doubled. Research results have been published to the International Journal of Infectious Disease in November 2020.
More importantly, researchers also noted that elderlies and underprivileged people were more susceptible to such psychological risks.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and disease prevention measures will persist for an extended period of time, an awareness of the psychological impacts and possible measures is needed, especially for high-risk populations.
Two elderlies, who are the service users at the Caritas Elderly Centre – Lai Kok (Sham Shui Po), were invited for an interview. Tse Mei-yuk, an 86-year-old elderly who lives by her own in Sham Shui Po, said that she now has nothing to do and feels very bored. During the pandemic, she would spend most of her daytime sitting in the park.
Chan Lin-heung, a 71-year-old elderly living with her husband in Sham Shui Po, said that with an increased amount of time spent at home, she would use the time to do housework (such as wiping the table), and she also noted that she and her husband may argue over very small things easily.
What Mei-yuk and Lin-heung said can well-represent how COVID-19 have affected elderlies and elderly services. In a survey conducted by the Asia-Pacific Institute of Ageing Studies at Lingnan University during April to May 2020, staff at elderly service centres reported that 70% of walk-in services have completely stopped, followed by social and recreational services at 69%.
In addition, when they were asked about the impacts of COVID-19 on elderlies, 96% of them agreed that elderlies lack social life, while 78% agreed that elderlies’ feelings of loneliness increased. Social factors were more impactful than the fear of getting infected, which only 71% of respondents think that elderlies would be affected by perceived health risks.
Many elderlies in Hong Kong rely on the operation of on-site elderly service centres in order to spend most of their daytime through joining various workshops and activities, meeting and talking to friends, or just to sit at the centre. As these services are either closed or are very limited under the pandemic, elderlies may not be able to find anything else to do.
Lau Suk-yi, a social worker at the Caritas Elderly Centre – Lai Kok (Sham Shui Po), is responsible for reaching out to hidden elderlies in the neighborhood. She said that even though on-site elderly service centres are closed, the need for elderly services have increased. Examples of these services include meal delivery services, requests for places in nursing homes, and calls made to elderlies to understand their needs.
She further added that elderlies have become more willing to learn and use online communication platforms such as ZOOM because of the pandemic, but elderlies’ levels of concentration and eyesight may limit the amount of time they can engage in online activities.
Feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness are also affecting people across the globe, even though the reasons behind may be different – in a large-scale study conducted across Denmark, France, Netherlands and United Kingdom involving 200,000 participants when lockdown initially started, the greatest worry for respondents in Denmark, France and Netherlands was “someone close to you becoming seriously ill”, which was greater than “becoming ill/severely ill themselves”.
Researchers also found that women, populations aged under 30, and people who previously had chronic diseases or mental illnesses were more likely to report high levels of loneliness, and such results were consistent across all 4 countries.
These research results and statistics all reflect that humans are social animals and are meant to live interdependently. Social interactions are crucial and essential to our daily living, but the pandemic is taking away most of it. Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that depressive behaviors may be cues for social support in order to raise the chances for survival, thus we can see that there are strong links between feelings of loneliness and depression.
Is Social Media the Remedy to Loneliness?
While using social media does make us feel more connected to our friends and families, it may still be a lot different than real-life interactions. A survey conducted by researchers from Italy in April 2020 suggested that people’s perceived feelings of loneliness would predict their excessive use of social media and their anxiety levels; and at the same time, excessive use of social media may also increase their anxiety levels.
Based on the results, researchers inferred that as people may feel more lonely during social isolation, they may spend more time on social media as a way to feel more socially connected, but the more time people spend on social media, the more they feel anxious – hence forming a vicious cycle.
Professor Tatia Lee Mei-chun, Chair Professor of the Department of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong, made several suggestions on how we can cope with loneliness and social isolation during the pandemic in a live online conversation held by Fight COVID-19 at the University of Hong Kong.
She suggested that measures such as promoting personal mental health, carrying out physical and cognitive exercises, establishing a daily routine and a regular sleep-wake cycle, not to be overly consumed by the negative news of COVID-19, talking to friends and families about your worries, concerns, and how to cope with them are all beneficial.
When asked what can be done to ease the current situation on elderlies’ feelings of loneliness, all interviewees, including Mei-yuk, Lin-heung and Suk-yi, hoped that the pandemic will soon come to an end where social activities will resume back to normal.