Some driven to breaking point by stress during Covid-19 pandemic

Alexandra Hospital's medical social worker Eleanor Lee with Ms Vahani (not her real name), an abuse victim. PHOTO: ALEXANDRA HOSPITAL
Alexandra Hospital's medical social worker Eleanor Lee with Ms Vahani (not her real name), an abuse victim. PHOTO: ALEXANDRA HOSPITAL

In late March, Ms Margaret Lim (not her real name) was praying as usual in the bedroom when her 58-year-old husband left the flat and later took his own life.

It was a day before his birthday, and she was going to discuss his birthday plans with him.

The family breadwinner had quit his job in the transport sector less than two weeks earlier.

Ms Lim, who is in her 50s, said the shift work had affected his health.

He had to adjust to his new boss' working style since late last year and wanted to transfer to a lower-ranked post for less pay, but it was not possible .

And then the pandemic came.

"He didn't share or talk much, but I could see that he was quite affected by Covid-19 because every day, there was always bad news on TV," said Ms Lim.

She said he might have felt hopeless about the future after his resignation, given that the pandemic was likely to be prolonged and would affect his chances of finding work.

"He probably foresaw that people would be losing their jobs, and he wouldn't be able to find a temporary job," she said.

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At home, her husband, who had depression for a few years and was being treated for it, also had to deal with his mother, who has dementia.

The 85-year-old could not understand why her daily outings were stopped in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"When she wanted to go out and couldn't, she would bang and bang on the door and shout. It was very draining emotionally. He felt very stressed," Ms Lim said.

"I think the trigger came when his mum fell in March. The hospital had to restrain her because she was restless... He probably felt very sad that he couldn't help her."

After his death, Ms Lim applied for financial aid to help the family get by as her work as a freelance trainer is not stable.

All these years, she had focused on caring for her in-laws while her husband brought home the bacon.

That was not the end of her woes.

Caring for her 97-year-old father-in-law has become more challenging now that he has started to hallucinate a lot, she said.

He might sleep a lot during the day, but not much at night, and constantly asks for help.

Ms Lim said she cannot afford to send him to a nursing home.

She also has yet to tell him about the death of his son.

Her two children are in university. Her daughter attends classes online now, while her elder son is about to graduate from a degree programme overseas, having taken a no-bond scholarship.

Ironically, the coveted freedom of such a scholarship is working against him in this pandemic as he is unsure of being able to land a full-time job in the next year or so.

He came back for Chinese New Year but did not return to school due to his father's death and the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

He is still paying rent for his overseas student accommodation, where his belongings are kept.

Ms Lim's domestic helper, like many others here, had to cancel her home leave because of Covid-19, but has asked when she can go back to see her three children.

Ms Lim, who cried more than once during the interview, is staying strong for her family, but finds that her backache, an old problem, has worsened this year.

Still, she is thankful that her mother-in-law was referred to a nursing home and has been cared for there.

"The past few months have been so hard with my husband having left us. If she is at home, she will be asking for him, and even if I tell her, she cannot remember.

"Every day, she will ask for him and wait for him to take her out."

Ms Lim's case highlights the heightened psychological stress that some people are experiencing during this pandemic, which has also seen more reports of family violence.

Recently, Ms Vahani (not her real name), 29, said her husband's physical abuse worsened amid the Covid-19 outbreak. They are both Malaysians working here.

Ms Vahani, who is in the service line, said the abuse started in 2017, the year before they got married.

Over the years, her 34-year-old husband has punched her near the eye, pulled her hair, hit her head and kicked her on various occasions.

Each time, however, she would forgive him and hope that things would get better one day. She said the pandemic just made it worse.

In February, as fears about the coronavirus outbreak were mounting, she found herself fretting one night when her security officer husband did not return home.

This had not happened before.

When he appeared the next day at the flat where they rented a room, he was with a friend, and they were both drunk.

After an exchange of words, her husband became angry, heaped vulgarities on her and hit her in front of his friend.

It drove her to file her first police report here against him.

"I (would) think, 'Am I a dog or a human? Why does he hit me like this?' " said Ms Vahani.

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Earlier this month, he beat her up again. The police were alerted, and she was sent to hospital for a check-up. The pandemic has meant that she and her husband cannot return to their home towns to visit their families.

Ms Vahani said her husband has been particularly frustrated that he could not return to lend support to his family, as his sibling had run afoul of the law a few months ago.

Ms Eleanor Lee, a medical social worker at Alexandra Hospital who handled Ms Lim's and Ms Vahani's cases, said she has already referred a few patients who have been assaulted at home to community partners for help this year.

In previous years, such cases were few and far between.

She added that the pandemic has not only worsened the mental health of some people, but also caused increased stress in some people who do not have existing mental health issues.

Associate Professor John Wong, centre director of the National University Health System's Mind Science Centre, said he and his colleagues have come across cases where people are suffering from more stress in this pandemic.

Those with pre-existing mental health issues, some youth and the elderly are among those vulnerable.

He shared that an elderly woman with past mental health issues had previously been keeping herself well by swimming five days a week.

That had to stop during the circuit breaker period, and she did not exercise at home.

"She then became anxious and worried that something bad would happen," he said.

"Over a period of three months, she became totally dependent on her family and helper."

Prof Wong said that some youth who did not have previous mental health challenges may also feel the pressure of staying at home a lot, due to intense parental supervision and their home environments, for instance.

His team has seen recent cases where some youth made suicide attempts or inflicted serious self-harm.

Some parents are not aware of the need to change their parenting ways, and continue to treat their teenagers as young children, he said.

In some of these cases, "the people to look out for is not the child, but the parent", he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2020, with the headline Some driven to breaking point by stress during Covid-19 pandemic. Subscribe