Germany grapples with mental health impact of Covid-19

The effects of the pandemic on mental health are being felt across the world, including in Germany. What impact will the extended shutdown have, and what support is available?

Germany grapples with mental health impact of Covid-19
The pandemic is seriously affecting the mental health of people. Photo: DPA

After suffering from depression for 15 years, Lena Ulrich had found ways to manage her life.

“I had a great therapist, good support in my private life and had structured and organised my life in such a way that it was working quite well for me,” said the 37-year-old, who hails from Cologne.

But when Germany went into partial lockdown in March, many support services closed or moved online. People were urged to stay at home and dramatically reduce social contact in a bid to reduce coronavirus infections.

“Everything collapsed relatively quickly for me,” Ulrich said. “I ended up in a rather strong and prolonged depressive episode.”

Ulrich is one of many people with mental health conditions who have been hit especially hard by the pandemic in Germany.

And with the country now in a second stay-at-home shutdown until at least the end of January, fears are running high that the situation will only worsen for this vulnerable group.

In a recent survey by health insurance company Pronova BKK, three quarters of the 154 psychiatrists and psychotherapists questioned said they were expecting an increase in mental illness over the next 12 months as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

According to the charity German Depression Aid, people with depression experienced the spring's restrictive measures as far more stressful than the general population.

They were almost twice as likely to report adverse effects caused by a lack of structure (75 percent versus 39 percent), while more than half saw their access to treatment restricted.

READ ALSO: Living in fear of coronavirus: What it means to be 'at risk' in your 20s in Berlin

Photo: DPA

'I felt isolated'

Psychiatric outpatient clinics, counselling centres and suicide crisis services have all seen an increase in demand during the pandemic, according to Dietrich Munz, head of the German Chamber of Psychotherapists.

“There are now a whole series of studies showing that that the mental stress caused by the restrictive measures, or by becoming unwell, can also lead to mental illness,” Munz told AFP.

For Georg Kepkowski, 58, it felt as though “many of the building blocks that help me to stay stable had fallen away”.

“I felt isolated and because of this… I went into a bout of depression,” said Kepkowski, who lives in the city of Duisburg and has been suffering from depression since his 20s.

Social isolation can easily lead to a deterioration in mental health, according to Munz.

“Humans are social beings. That means we look for and need interpersonal exchange — on all levels, from small conversations in the workplace to trusting conversations with good acquaintances or friends.”

READ ALSO: You are not alone – living abroad in the time of corona

Fear of death

But being stuck indoors with the same people for days on end comes with its own problems.

“Too much closeness can also cause psychological stress,” Munz said. “Being reduced exclusively to the family is also difficult if there are too few opportunities for retreat.”

And then there is the fear of catching the virus, the uncertainty around what would happen if we became unwell and even the fear of death for those in high-risk groups, the expert points out.

Praised for its management of the first wave of the virus, Germany has been hit hard by the second, with new cases soaring and daily deaths passing 1,000 for the first time in late December.

Ulrich Hegerl, the head of German Depression Aid, urged people with depression to take steps to avoid isolation in the second shutdown.

“Concerns about becoming infected with the virus, but especially restrictive measures, are a burden for many people,” he said.

His organisation offers a helpline for those in distress, and an online forum.

READ ALSO: How Germany's international residents are affected by the coronavirus pandemic

It also recommends social media support groups as well as some smartphone apps designed to help people manage depression.

Many psychotherapists have moved their sessions online during the shutdowns, making it possible for people to continue treatment without leaving their homes.

By Femke Colborne

Member comments

  1. Of course we are & the rest of the world included. You can’t shut people away without social contact,without jobs/ income source & expect everything to be dandy. Wake up! Lockdowns create more problems than it tries to solve. We all must understand that government is the cause of these problems that will fester & worsen, not an alledged virus.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.