Covid-19 information overload may lead to mental health issues, warn experts

A consultant psychiatrist recommends that people limit the amount of information they consume about Covid-19, especially if they have underlying mental health issues.

PETALING JAYA: A consultant psychiatrist warns that an “information overload” from the Covid-19 outbreak which has seen the government’s movement control order (MCO) extended two weeks beyond its original expiration date could take a toll on the mental state of some people, especially those who may already have underlying mental health issues.

From forwarded WhatsApp messages to headlines in papers, online portals and on social media, news about the virus which has so far claimed 20 lives in Malaysia appears to be everywhere.

Philip George, who leads the psychiatry department at the International Medical University, said people under existing stress due to family issues, work problems or financial difficulties are more likely to be affected by such news.

“The risk of mental health problems increases with a combination of these factors,” he said, adding however that greater exposure to Covid-19 content does not necessarily lead to issues with mental health.

“It all depends on the individual’s vulnerability to mental health issues and the movies they watch… whether they provide more exposure (to Covid-19) or are an escape.”

To mitigate this risk, George said it was important to find information that is accurate and reliable. He praised the health ministry’s various social media platforms for their credibility and regular updates and recommended that people limit the amount of information they take in about the virus.

“We need to find information that is not falsely reassuring but also not catastrophic.

“People should try to restrict the amount of Covid-19-related content they consume to maybe once a day, especially those who are prone to anxiety and other mental health issues,” he added.

Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society adviser Nathan Vytialingam also voiced concern about the effects of watching too much television, saying negative news reports have an especially adverse effect on the elderly.

“I think if you’re watching CNN and BBC every day and it’s the same old stories about Covid-19, and if there is a lot of negativity coming out of these news reports such as the number of deaths, it’s going to depress you.

“Some of the news reports, such as the number of deaths in Italy, can be depressing, especially for older people,” said Vytialingam, who is an occupational therapist by profession.

Peter Voo, an associate professor at Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s faculty of psychology and education, said it was natural that people felt the need to keep up with the latest news about Covid-19.

But while there is nothing wrong with people going online to stay updated, he said, there could come a point in time where content becomes “saturated”.

At that point, he said, it would be up to a person’s individual coping mechanism to deal with the situation.

Voo also warned that the elderly or those who stay alone are more prone to depression.

He said this makes the role of social workers all the more important since the MCO prevents such sections of the population from getting face-to-face support from their families, friends and the wider community.

Vytialingam acknowledged the constraints of the MCO but suggested that people work towards creating a new structure for each day that would help them keep their minds off Covid-19.

“Look at doing things that make you feel good, like exercising or gardening,” he said.

“It’s all about how we use our time to do something enjoyable. You’ll be surprised by how fast the time flies by.”