Psychiatrists deemed ‘essential’ in time of COVID-19


Dr. Jain cautioned colleagues, however, that “there will be a tsunami” of mental illness when the coronavirus crisis lifts. She is especially concerned about patient populations that are socioeconomically disadvantaged already and how their lives with be affected by lost wages, unemployment, and business failures. “Medical professionals will see the consequences of this in the days and weeks and months after the pandemic has settled,” she predicted.

The APA poll shows that, early in the crisis, more than 60% of people are anxious about family and loved ones contracting COVID-19.

Maintaining ‘reflective space’ essential

At the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric residential treatment facility in Stockbridge, Mass., staff and patients are adjusting to new rules that aim to prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus. “Social distancing requirements are having a huge impact,” said Eric M. Plakun, MD, medical director and CEO of Austen Riggs, in an interview. “You can’t have groups in the same way; you can’t have families come in for a family meeting; you can’t have quite the same the freedom to come and go. A lot of management issues are being addressed, but it is crucial also to maintain the ‘reflective space’ essential to do the kind of clinical work we do.” One approach, he said, is virtual meetings with colleagues that address on-the-job management issues, but also leave a space for how staff members are feeling.

"Social distancing requirements are having a huge impact" on patients, said Dr. Eric M. Plakun of the Austen Riggs Center of Stockbridge, Mass.

"Social distancing requirements are having a huge impact" on patients, said Dr. Eric M. Plakun.

“It’s easy to get into crisis-response mode,” he said, “where you’re always managing but never leave a space to talk about vulnerability, helplessness, and fear.”

As the facility’s staff adjusts by embracing teleconference technology and adapting group meetings to the 6-feet-apart rule,

Dr. Plakun said it is wise to bring patients into discussions about how to adapt to the era of coronavirus precautions. “They really want to be part of the response,” he said, noting that patients have approached staff members to say they want to collaborate about changes. “That’s a credible offer we intend to accept.”

Still, communicating with patients as a whole about the coronavirus can be difficult. As Dr. Plakun noted, it’s now impossible to bring 75 people together into one room for a meeting. “If you have four to five smaller meetings, how do you maintain some congruence in the information that’s presented?”

Dr. Plakun suggested that colleagues find time to engage in the familiar, such as face-to-face clinical work. “That’s been the most reassuring and rewarding part of my day since it feels almost like normal,” he said.

Stocking up on medications

Jessica “Jessi” Gold, MD, MS, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, often treats college students. Asian students started to worry early in the pandemic, she said in an interview.

Dr. Jessica Gold, assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis

Dr. Jessica Gold

“At the beginning, there were a lot of concerns about the public’s view: ‘Did this come from China? Is it China’s fault?’ A lot of our students felt that if they coughed, and they were a white person, they’d be OK. But if they were Asian, everyone would wonder why they were in class and not at home. That got worse over time: the fear about – and anxiety from – stoking racism.”

Later, as classes began to be canceled, Dr. Gold started to see the psychological effects of disruption and uncertainty about the future. “This can lead people to feel like what they knew before is just not there anymore. This can obviously cause anxiety but also has the potential to cause depression.” Patients also might slip into overuse of alcohol and drugs, or they might engage in other kinds of harmful behavior. Eating disorders, for example, “are ways to have control when other things aren’t in control,” she said.

Dr. Gold pointed to research into the mental health after effects of quarantines, such as those imposed during the SARS outbreak. A review of 24 studies published this year found that most “reported negative psychological effects, including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. Stressors included longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma. Some researchers have suggested long-lasting effects” (Lancet. 2020;395:912-20).

Dr. Gold is urging patients to recall the warning signs that alerted them to psychological downturns in the past: “Try to remember what those warning signs are and pay attention to whether you see them.” And, Dr. Gold said, she asks patients to think about what has helped them get better.

In some cases, she said, patients are already preparing themselves for experiencing mental distress by stocking up on medications. “Some people have a bottle of 10-20 pills that they only use in emergencies and keep as a kind of security blanket,” she said, and she’s seen some of them ask for refills. It seems they’ve either taken the pills recently or want to stash them just in case. This makes sense, since their anxiety is higher, she said.

Dr. Gold cautioned that psychiatrists need to be careful to not overextend themselves when they’re not treating patients. “It is easy to be therapist to friends, family, and colleagues,” she said, “but we need to take care of ourselves, too.”

Dr. Jain is author of “The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing From the Frontlines of PTSD Science” (New York: Harper, 2019). She has no other disclosures. Dr. Plakun and Dr. Gold reported no relevant disclosures.

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