Overwhelming Uncertainty – Mental Health Issues on the Rise Under COVID-19

With the start of the pandemic, the Donau University in Krems began researching the impacts of the crisis on the moods and well-being of Austrians, with one in five affected.

“I have never felt helpless like this before,” says Medical University employee Margot.  “I have a feeling that my life has been on hold since March and there is nothing I can do to change that.” 

A study, conducted in April by the Donau University in Krems, has discovered a sharp increase in symptoms of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders across all age groups. The number of people affected more than tripled, amounting to 20 percent of the country’s population. The early upswing has been confirmed with two follow up studies in June and September. This is especially evident in the case of individuals with pre-existing mental conditions. Around eight percent of people are currently suffering from severe symptoms of depression, compared to 2014 when it was only one percent.  “It is worrisome that such a large segment of the population is under severe and prolonged mental strain,” says the author of the study Univ.-Prof. Dr. Christoph Pieh.

This is the case with Serina, a hotel receptionist, who had been struggling with depression and anxiety before the pandemic. “The first couple of months were really hard. I lost my job and was overwhelmed by this feeling of uncertainty,” she says.

Job loss and financial uncertainty are undoubtedly on the mind of many with the unemployment rate in Austria up 41.3%, compared to 2019, according to the Public Employment Service Austria (AMS). This development has presumably put additional strain on the free psychiatric services and help hotlines. 

 “I have called the help hotlines, but there is only so much they can do over the phone,” Serina continued.

The Vienna Psychosocial Services have set up a separate helpline for mental health concerns connected to COVID-19. The campaign, which started back in April under the slogan “Talking helps!”, encourages anyone struggling to reach out to them.  

For Serina, current services don’t provide enough support and resources to those who need it most.    

“The psychiatric service could also only offer me anti-depressants,” she adds. “I wish there were more facilities that provide therapy and personal consultations, because there are a lot of people who badly need it,” she concluded.    

Mario, a 28-year-old computer scientist, initially felt the pandemic had given the world a much-needed pause. “But after months and months of social-distancing and zoom-calls, it got very hard to get motivated and this definitely took its toll on my mental health,” he says.

In his view, it is clear that the government hasn’t offered all the necessary aid during this crisis. “The hotline telephone numbers are the only help I was aware of during this pandemic, which I think is by far not enough.”

Dr. med. univ. Thomas Schwarzgruber, a specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapeutic medicine says that the severity of mental burden depends on a variety of socio-psychologic factors.  “People who live alone, have a bad living situation or have previously struggled with mental health, for example, are more likely to experience symptoms,” he says.

However, he names unpredictability as the most significant source of anxiety for the majority. “We get a lot of different information, messages that at times contradict each other, which then leads to fear. From time to time, it is important to filter the overwhelming wave of news we are exposed to,” he adds. Perhaps most important is building a good support system and asking for help when you need it. 

For the past nine months, physical health has been the absolute priority for most. Now, with the approval of the vaccine and the end of the pandemic insight, attention is turning to the mental burden and the invisible scars the COVID era has left in its wake. 

Bogdan Brkić
Originally from southern Serbia, he moved to Vienna in 2013 to study German Philology. He is an aspiring journalist whose passions include history, music and French pastries.

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