Untold stories of COVID-19 in Kuwait: Effect of pandemic on mental health

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Stock Kuwait city skyline
Kuwait city skyline. On top of the social constraints, the economic crises that hit the pandemic have crippled many forcing them leave their homes, lose jobs or even worse – making them unable to put food on the table.
Image Credit: AFP

Kuwait City: Since COVID-19 began, as humans we are trying to navigate a new way of life and adapt to a new reality that in itself takes a toll on one’s mental wellbeing.

Mental health specialists everywhere have been sounding the alarm on the rise of mental health challenges, from depression to anxiety in all its forms (phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety) that have increased as a result of the pandemic.

Some people are struggling more than others whether it be on a personal or social level. The pandemic has created physical barriers, whether near or far, increasing social isolation and loneliness that can have serious effects on one’s mental health.

On top of the social constraints, the economic crises that hit the pandemic have crippled many forcing them leave their homes, lose jobs or even worse – making them unable to put food on the table.

Although many people have struggled during this period with their mental health, getting access to help has been and continues to be difficult due to social, financial and physical barriers.

One initiative working towards breaking the stigma around mental health and making it accessible, is Ayadi, the first teletherapy platform in the GCC, providing quality mental health services securely and easily with qualified therapists from the region. The mental health specialists interviewed for this piece are all part of the Ayadi platform.

As for the stories they are part of the Neighbourhood Tales: Kuwait Under lockdown a project launched by en.v, a non-profit organisation working towards fostering a more compassionate and innovative society by mobilising and connecting change-makers. The stories, for this specific piece, highlight some of the mental health challenges that community members have endured during the pandemic.

Given that the collection aims to shed light on untold stories, the piece focuses on experiences of expats in Kuwait as many are left unheard. While each story is specific to a person, the events they witnessed or things they underwent during the pandemic are not one-offs; rather, numerous other people could see a reflection of themselves in the stories.

Sudden halts

Ahmed B, an Egyptian pharmacist, shared the story of his roommate who has not received his pay cheque for months because he was unable to go to work due to the three-month lockdown imposed on Farwaniya.

He explained that his roommate was “in a really bad place mentally. He was like a caveman” and that, “he had lived in a bleak, repetitive routine, where there was no laughter and no jokes, there was nothing.”

The change in one’s daily routine, the unpredictability of the situation and the stress that comes with losing a job all have an effect on one’s mental health.

“Big and sudden shifts in one’s daily routine, schedule and habits can shake their sense of control and could lead to stress, anxiety and in severe scenarios to traumas. The mind needs time to adapt to new circumstances and to start perceiving them as ‘normal’,” Dr. Michel Nawfal, clinical psychologist, Vice President of the Middle East Psychological Association, told Gulf News.

Fear of testing positive

Pedro, a Filipino system administrator turned social worker, explained that many people, especially those that tested positive for COVID-19, have struggled with their mental health because of the lack of credible information and psychological support.

“We can observe that we have different psychological responses for the people who contracted the virus. Some people struggled with the isolation and entered a phase of depression. The constant fear and anxiety of the outcome if we get infected can increase the effect of the symptoms, which creates more struggle mentally, and creates psychosomatic disorders,” Maher El Helou, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, told Gulf news.

Strength can break you

In the past year, there has been a rise in suicides in Kuwait, especially amongst non-Kuwaitis. Within the first two weeks of 2021, four suicides were reported all of which were non-Kuwaitis. Pedro revealed in his interview that some days there are as many as eight suicides.

According to a study by Leo Sher in the International Journal of Medicine, suicide rates went up during the 2003 SARS epidemic in Hong Kong due to social disengagement. As for economic effect, Sher pointed to there is correlation between suicide and unemployment, as there was a spike in suicide cases during the 1930s Great Depression, as well as in most recession years.

Pedro tried to make sense of the rise of suicides and stated that it is not only the financial support that drove many to commit suicide, but it is also the lack of mental support. He explained that it is hardest on migrant workers because they travelled to Kuwait to make a living and support their families back home, while also expecting to stay strong without any mental support.

In the Philippines the national tree is called Nara, while it is very strong it stands alone therefore when a huge storm comes along the strong tree can fall. Meanwhile, the bamboo although it sways during a storm will never break because it is surrounded by other bamboo trees. This anecdote was shared by Pedro, to allude to the fact that, “Nara stands [solely] while bamboo is a group. So the same thing, the migrants are, you know, need support, especially mentally not only financially.”

Pandemic has made it worse

While the pandemic put a strain on most people’s mental health, some were more at risk. People who have a history of mental health disorders as well as those who are predisposed to mental health disorders.

Amal, a 25-year old Palestinian tutor, shared how the pandemic triggered mental health crises amongst some of her closest family members. Her younger brother, who lives in the US, suffered from severe hallucinations and her father, who she no longer lives with because she is newly married, was diagnosed with bipolar.

Worrying about her loved ones, Amal’s mental health also deteriorated during the lockdown and with therapy being so expensive she explained how she “knew that it was important to take care of your mental health. But I didn’t realise like how little things could affect you for the rest of your life. Like in myself and my brother and my dad. I never realised it was like an important investment.”

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