The COVID-19 pandemic is an experience that is unprecedented in our lifetime. It is having a pervasive effect due to how mysterious, potentially dangerous, and sustained it is. We don’t know how bad it’s going to get or how long it’s going to last. We have natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, but they are limited in time and scope. But this global pandemic is something we can’t put our arms around just yet, breeding uncertainty, worry, and fear. This is where mental health professionals need to come in.
The populations being affected by this pandemic can be placed into different groups on the basis of their mental health consequences and needs. First you have, for lack of a better term, “the worried well.” These are people with no preexisting mental disorder who are naturally worried by this and are trying to take appropriate actions to protect themselves and prepare. For such individuals, the equivalent of mental health first-aid should be useful (we’ll come back to that in a moment). Given the proper guidance and sources of information, most such people should be able to manage the anxiety, worry, and dysphoria associated with this critical pandemic.
Then there are those who have preexisting mental conditions related to mood, anxiety, stress, or obsessive tendencies. They are probably going to have an increase in their symptoms, and as such, a corresponding need for adjusting treatment. This may require an increase in their existing medications or the addition of an ad hoc medication, or perhaps more frequent contact with their doctor or therapist.
Because travel and direct visitation is discouraged at the moment, virtual methods of communication should be used to speak with these patients. Such methods have long existed but haven’t been adopted in large numbers; this may be the impetus to finally make it happen. Using the telephone, FaceTime, Skype, WebEx, Zoom, and other means of videoconferencing should be feasible. As billing procedures are being adapted for this moment, there’s no reason why individuals shouldn’t be able to contact their mental health provider.
Substance abuse is also a condition vulnerable to the stress effects of this pandemic. This will prompt or tempt those to use substances that they’ve abused or turned to in the past as a way of self-medicating and assuaging their anxiety and worry.
It’s possible that the pandemic could find its way into delusions or exacerbate symptoms, but somewhat paradoxically, people with serious mental illnesses often respond more calmly to crises than do individuals without them. As a result, the number of these patients requiring emergency room admission for possible exacerbation of symptoms is probably not going to be that much greater than normal.
How to Cope With an Unprecedented Situation
For the worried well and for the clinicians who have understandable fears about exposure, there are several things you can try to manage your anxiety. There are concentric circles of concern that you have to maintain. Think of it like the instructions on an airplane when, if there’s a drop in cabin pressure, you’re asked to apply your own oxygen mask first before placing one on your child. In the same way, you must first think about protecting yourself by limiting your exposure and monitoring your own physical state for any symptoms. But then you must be concerned about your family, your friends, and also society. This is a situation where the impulse and the ethos of worrying about your fellow persons—being your brother’s keeper—is imperative.
The epidemic has been successfully managed in some countries, like Singapore and China, which, once they got on top of it, were able to limit contagion in a very dramatic way. But these are authoritarian governments. The United States doesn’t work that way, which is what makes appealing to the principle of caring for others so crucial. You can protect yourself, but if other people aren’t also protected, it may not matter. You have to worry not just about yourself but about everyone else.
When it comes to stress management, I recommend not catastrophizing or watching the news media 24/7. Distract yourself with other work or recreational activities. Reach out and communicate—virtually, of course—with friends, family, and healthcare providers as needed. Staying in touch acts not just as a diversion but also as an outlet for assuaging your feelings, your sense of being in this alone, feeling isolated.
There are also cognitive reframing mechanisms you can employ. Consider that although this is bad, some countries have already gone through it. And we’ll get through it too. You’ll understandably ask yourself what it would mean if you were to be exposed. In most cases you can say, “I’m going to have the flu and symptoms that are not going to be pleasant, but I’ve had the flu or serious sickness before.”
Remember that there are already antiretroviral treatments being tested in clinical trials and showing efficacy. It’s good to know that before this pandemic ends, some of these treatments will probably be clinically applied, mostly to those who are severely affected and in intensive care.
Diagnose yourself. Monitor your state. Determine whether the stress is really having an impact on you. Is it affecting your sleep, appetite, concentration, mood? And if you do have a preexisting psychiatric condition, don’t feel afraid to reach out to your mental health provider. Understand that you’re going to be anxious, which may aggravate your symptoms and require an adjustment in your treatment. That’s okay. It’s to be expected and your provider should be available to help you.
Controlling this outbreak via the same epidemiologic infectious disease prevention guidance that works in authoritarian societies is not going to be applicable here because of the liberties that we experience in American society. What will determine our success is the belief that we’re in this together, that we’re going to help each other. We should be proud of that, as it shows how Americans and people around the world stand up in situations like this.
Let’s also note that even though everybody is affected and undergoing previously unimaginable levels of anticipated stress and dislocation, it’s the healthcare providers who are really on the frontlines. They’re under tremendous pressure to continue to perform heroically, at great risk to themselves. They deserve a real debt of gratitude.
We will get through this, but as we do, it will not end until we’ve undergone an extreme test of our character. I certainly hope and trust that we will be up to it.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman is chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is a former president of the American Psychiatric Association.
Disclosure: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD, has disclosed the following relevant financial relationships: Served as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant, or trustee for Clintara; Intracellular Therapies. Received research grant from Alkermes; Biomarin; EnVivo/Forum; Genentech; Novartis/Novation; Sunovion. Patent: Repligen.
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