The coronavirus pandemic weighs heavily on psychiatric patients with conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. Meanwhile, a national poll released March 25 by the American Psychiatric Association shows that almost half of all Americans are anxious about contracting COVID-19 and 40% are anxious about becoming seriously ill or dying from the virus. In light of stressors on patients and nonpatients alike, mental health professionals have a key role in helping to alleviate suffering tied to the public health crisis, according to psychiatrists from across the country.
“There’s so much we can do to help people put order on this chaos,” said, section chief of outpatient mental health with the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto (Calif.) Health Care System, in an interview. “We are essential workers in this time.”
Dr. Jain, who specializes in treating PTSD, said those patients are especially vulnerable to the stress and disruptions spawned by the pandemic. “When you go to the grocery store and there’s no food, that can be triggering for people who survived situations with a feeling of calamity or panic,” she said. “People are reporting worsening of nightmares and spontaneous panic attacks after having been stable with symptoms for many months. These are the kinds of stories that are starting to filter through.”
To make things even more difficult, she said, shelter-in-place orders are preventing patients from taking advantage of healthy coping strategies, such as working out at the gym or going to support groups. “We have an invaluable role to play in trying to prevent long-term consequences by going into problem-solving modes with patients.” Dr. Jain offered several tips that might help patients who are suffering:
- Use technology to stay in touch with support communities and boost self-care. “How can you be flexible with FaceTime, Skype, or phone even if you might not be able to have that face-to-face time? What are you doing to double down on your efforts at self-care – listening to music, reading, daily meditation, or walks? Double down on what you can do to prevent anxiety and stress levels from building up.”
- Take breaks from the news, which can contribute to hypervigilance and disrupted sleep. “I’m seeing that people are going down these rabbit holes of having the news or social media on 24/7,” Dr. Jain said. “You have to stay informed. But you need to pick trusted news sources and have chunks of time that are free of coronavirus coverage.” Understand that life is going to be difficult for a while. “We’re doing a lot of reassurance and education,” she said, “helping people to know and accept that the next few days, weeks, and months are going to be stressful.”