Associate Professor Datin Dr. Sharmilla, is a psychiatrist currently practising in a public hospital in the Klang valley. She shares with us her views on the effect of the pandemic on the mental health of the general population.


What is depression and how does a person know whether he is depressed?

Depression is a mental health disorder generally experienced by roughly 5-20% of the population This figure, however increased drastically during the pandemic. Depression, is not just a state of mind which can be willed or wished away but is related to physical changes in the brain. People who are depressed usually experience symptoms such as low mood, loss of interest in hobbies, sleeping problems, worries, tearfulness and lethargy. One of the signs of depression is early morning awakening. Without treatment, these symptoms can last for months or years. Depressive and anxiety symptoms became more prevalent after the pandemic. The reasons for this are social isolation, frustration, boredom and financial amongst many others. In some adolescents and college students, online learning was another source of frustration as they had to sit for examinations.

While genetics plays an important part in depression and can run in families for generations it is also dependant upon a person’s outlook of life as well as his or her coping styles during times of adversity. Those who were from lower socioeconomic status, single and who have an avoidant coping style were more affected by the pandemic. Loss of loved ones due to COVID and stress, such as financial or relationship problems might cause one to be depressed. Studies have documented that those individuals who were seeking psychiatric help before the pandemic for other reasons fared better psychologically during the pandemic.

Should one feel they are depressed they should see a general practitioner (GP) or a psychiatrist. A GP can diagnose the problem and make a referral to a psychiatrist . The psychiatrist will prescribe anti-depressants drugs to the patient. The patient might also need to undergo psychotherapy or ‘talk therapy’ which may occur over a period of 10 to 20 weeks. Seeing a psychiatrist in a government hospital is affordable to most people. Hence people should really seek help if they suspect that they are depressed. Undiagnosed or untreated depression will lead to low productivity and abstentism in work, family negligence and even dire consequences such as suicide.

Depression is very treatable. Hence, do not suffer in silence. When one finds oneself sad or worried, they should find someone to talk to and confide in. One should not turn to substances like alcohol as it can only worsen one’s condition.

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