Seventy-five per cent Pakistani adults are experiencing stress and anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic, preliminary findings of a recent Aga Khan University (AKU) study show, suggesting that the country is at risk of a mental health crisis.

High levels of stress and anxiety, the research found, were borne out of fears of contracting the life-threatening virus, losing a loved one to the virus or financial losses during the pandemic.

The study was conducted by AKU’s department of community health sciences (CHS) through an online survey of 373 respondents between April and May — the first phase of the study.

It used validated screening tools to determine if people had generalised anxiety disorder, perceived stress or both conditions.

More than 90 per cent of the participants were from Sindh and Punjab.

According to the study, three out of four Pakistani adults are suffering from moderate or high levels of stress during the Covid-19 pandemic while nearly one in three were experiencing moderate or severe anxiety.

Respondents ranked the top three causes of anxiety and stress as being fear of contracting the virus, financial losses during the pandemic and losing a loved one to Covid-19.

Mental health crisis

Survey participants were much more concerned about their loved ones catching the disease with nearly eight out of 10 respondents, or 76pc, feeling a lot of fear or extreme fear of those close to them falling ill.

In contrast, four of 10 respondents, or 36pc, reported a lot of fear or extreme fear about catching the virus themselves.

“The pandemic has exposed our social and economic vulnerabilities and created widespread uncertainty in society,” said Prof Sameen Siddiqi, the CHS department chair.

“If left unchecked, stress associated with Covid-19 can lead to distress and the distress can lead to disease.”

Those already suffering from anxiety and stress are especially vulnerable to advanced illnesses such as depression and other mental health disorders, added Maryam Lakhdir, the study’s principal investigator and senior instructor at the CHS department.

“The findings suggest that we are at risk of a mental health crisis during the pandemic. Policymakers must prioritise psychosocial interventions to limit the chances of long-lasting scars on our mental health,” she said.

Role of social media

The study also found a high correlation between exposure to rumours via WhatsApp and anxiety or stress, since more than eight out of 10 respondents suffering from the two conditions were using this social media platform. Respondents who reported frequently checking the news also had more anxiety and stress.

“Misinformation, conspiracy theories, and rumour mongering are likely to lead to mental health issues during the pandemic,” said Dr Romaina Iqbal, the lead of CHS’s non-communicable diseases and mental health section.

The study will continue to enrol participants until the end of August and findings will continue to be released to monitor changes in the population’s mental health.