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Jun 4, 2020

Healthy Living: Anxiety Spikes in COVID-19 Era

The message from local health authorities has been clear; it is highly likely that at some time, Belize may face another wave of COVID-19.  While we continue to practice preventative measures to delay or prevent further cases of the new coronavirus, there is another wave spreading across the country that demands our attention. Tonight in Healthy Living, we look at the impact the pandemic is having on mental health in Belize. 


Marleni Cuellar, Reporting

It started from as early as April when the Ministry of Health opened up its toll-free hotline.


Juliet Simmons

Juliet Simmons, Psychotherapist, Ministry of Health

“One out of every three calls we received was about somebody who felt – they expressed anxiety symptoms. Mainly because they felt they had COVID-19.  At the clinics, people came in with anxiety attacks, also thinking they had COVID-19.”


Now, thinking you contracted Covid-19 may seem like a regular worry that we all had at some point in time. But when the fear, worry, and stress become overwhelming, it may be a sign that you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder. According to one psychotherapist with the Ministry of Health, the cases have only been increasing since April.


Juliet Simmons

“Everyone is talking about the second wave of COVID-19 coming for mental health professionals. We are looking at a wave of mental health problems coming in. A surge is coming, and we are seeing so many more people, especially for depression, for anxiety for stress for substance use and, of course, suicidal ideations. And that is another big one that we concerned about.  Last week I got more referrals for anxiety from the medical officer than I did in an average month. An average month I’m referring to before the pandemic. At one clinic, I would get maybe five or six referrals for anxiety, but in one week, I got so much more than that.”


This is Juliet’s experience as a mental health professional in the public healthcare system. In the private system, Internist, Dr. Fernando Cuellar reports that he’s also seen a surge in patients coming in with anxiety.


Fernando Cuellar

Dr. Fernando Cuellar, Internist, Critical Care Specialist, BMA

“We gone from once or twice a week to once or twice a day. That’s the amount of increase I have seen for sure. Persons come with symptoms that are vague. They don’t know it’s an anxiety disorder. They have vague symptoms, their right ear hurt them, and they let big toe hurt them. And they are trying to figure out if there is a connection. Oh, and my the way my thumb hurts me too. So have to go through the proper history taking, we do different tests and make sure that nothing else is wrong and many times, fortunately, their tests check out fine, and then you realize that maybe the issue is, in fact, an anxiety disorder.”


So what is causing this surge?


Juliet Simmons

“Anything that is uncertain and this is defiantly uncertain times for. That is the root cause of the anxiety that people are having right now. Anxiety is one of the mental health conditions that has been rampant in Belize and even more so now since COVID-19 because COVID brings so much uncertainty into people’s lives.”


Dr. Fernando Cuellar

“It’s not just the thought of them contracting the COVID-19, its the quarantine the whole lifestyle change the whole locking up the whole unable to move the economics. That’s a bit thing definitely that they see their income fall, their spending capacity fall, and the uncertainty of the future.”


Treatment for anxiety can start with a change of lifestyle and talk therapy, but some people may require anti-anxiety medication. Both health professionals urge that it should not be taken lightly as these overwhelming feelings are real and can escalate.


Dr. Fernando Cuellar

“It’s not a voluntary thing. It’s not a light switch that people can put on and put off. There are physiological, there are medical explanations as to why people get anxious. It has to do with chemicals in the brain that gets unbalanced, and so it’s not useful to tell somebody just to get over it.”


Juliet Simmons

“I’m worried about substance use and suicidal ideation and suicide attention and attempts, especially for men. Why? For men, many of their coping strategies are drinking, so that will lead to substance abuse, which makes you make some bad decisions. If there was depression there before then, yes, it goes into suicidal ideation. In mental health, we are preparing to see more people, so we know that Covid-19 this pandemic has affected people’s mental health we are preparing for that. That we have what they need.”


Marleni Cuellar

“Do we have enough mental health professionals to cope with this?”


Juliet Simmons

“No, we do not. Definitely we do not; in the government system, we do not. We do what we can the psychiatric nurses as well as retrained to work with people with anxiety and depression, and we like having options. People can see professionals in the private sector, as well.”


For some, you can be proactive about staving off anxiety by:

-      Keeping a routine

-      Eating healthy

-      Exercising

-      Getting sufficient rest, and,

-      Taking some time to reframe your thoughts.


Juliet Simmons

“We spend a lot of time in our minds worrying about what will happen next week and what will happen in august but let’s bring back it right now, how do you feel spend some time right there at that moment. Take some deep breaths, and these things do calm you down.”


If you still have problems coping, you can see a doctor or mental health professional in the public or private healthcare system.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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