COVID-19 is more than an infectious disease caused by the novel SARS-CoV-2. Researchers in Denmark therefore investigated how being infected with COVID-19 affected people’s mental health during the first wave of the pandemic. Narrative interviews revealed how the participants experienced COVID-19 as a threat to their existence and bodily perception and as interfering in ordinary social relationships.
2020 will forever be the year in which such words as pandemic, infectivity and isolation were massively integrated into everyday language. The first cases of COVID-19 arriving in Denmark in the early spring kick-started a research wave focusing on the clinical characteristics of COVID-19. However, some researchers chose a somewhat different angle on how COVID-19 affected people.
“In the first wave of the pandemic with COVID-19 being caused by a new and unknown virus, we were interested in investigating how people experienced having this disease. Considerable pathophysiological research had already been conducted but there were no studies on the mental health aspects or experiences from hospitals,” explains Malene Missel, Senior Research and Clinical Nursing Specialist, Heart Centre, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen.
Fifteen people 22–67 years old participated in the study. All had developed COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic and explained through narrative interviews how they had experienced COVID-19. Five participants were hospitalized with severe symptoms, and 10 were in home isolation.
A threat to their existence
After developing COVID-19, the participants suddenly experienced being more conscious of the existential dimension of life than before COVID-19, thinking “Why me?” or “This simply cannot be real”. Malene Missel explains how the unknown disease trajectory contributed to the feeling of existential threat but also highlights how the media’s incessant coverage of the worldwide news about the new virus led to an increased sense of seriousness and threat.
A threat to bodily perception
The unknown trajectory and associated loss of security and control also meant that the participants were in an unknown situation with heightened focus on physical symptoms. The participants explained how they lost both confidence in and control over their body and began to doubt the signals their body sent, such that COVID-19 altered self-esteem, mood, emotions and thoughts.
“People experienced insecurity in their own body, precisely because COVID-19 and its symptoms differed from anything experienced before, and people therefore had difficulty in determining when or whether to react to the symptoms,” says Malene Missel.
Interfering in ordinary social relationships
Social conditions became significant when the participants became ill. They received enormous practical and emotional support from their social networks. This care, attention and love helped the participants through a difficult time marked by insecurity and loneliness.
“The relationships they used to have with other people virtually vanished, especially for those who were hospitalized, since they were only surrounded by healthcare personnel wearing personal protective equipment, and this could contribute to feeling lonely,” explains Malene Missel.
Conducting the interviews during the first wave led to greater focus on the unknown aspect, since fewer people had COVID-19 and less was known about people with COVID-19. The participants experienced great helpfulness from their social networks but also special attention by experiencing being known as someone who has had COVID-19, and this continued after they were no longer ill.
“The respondents told us that the healthcare system did not address the feeling of having a life-threatening disease and the associated existential and mental reactions, since there was understandably more focus on the physical aspects and treatment. The mental dimension can be included more by focusing on what these people experience,” concludes Malene Missel, who adds that she thinks that this special aspect of COVID-19 has eased somewhat since more people have had COVID-19 combined with increased knowledge about the disease.