Worried? Scared? You're not alone. At the moment, it's those who aren't treating the COVID-19 epidemic with the seriousness it deserves that we should be more concerned about.
But public health experts warn that the psychological burdens of coping with the crisis could spawn a wave of mental health problems. In addition to the stress of trying to protect yourself and your family from becoming infected, there are other things that may be impinging on our psyche: the economic pressures of a closed business or a lost job; the radical disruption of our daily routines; the isolation that goes with sheltering in place.
Just as the pandemic is almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better, those other sources of fear and anxiety are only going to intensify, at least for a while.
“We need to get ahead of this,” said Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan, who discussed the situation in an interview Wednesday and during a media briefing Monday reported by The Journal Gazette's Rosa Salter Rodriguez. McMahan stressed that to a surprising extent, you may not be able to control or even be aware of the way your mind and body are reacting to the stress.
The message that needs to get through now is “you're not crazy, you're not weak” and you're not overblowing things by being upset. “This is a biological phenomenon,” McMahan said. “Asking the public to not be fearful is like asking them not to digest their food.”
Who is most at risk? As with the virus itself, everyone is susceptible to psychological scarring from the crisis, but some are more vulnerable than others — the 20% of the population who already struggle with anxiety; those who have been infected, even after recovery; family members who may have watched a loved one struggle with the illness for weeks; and health care workers.
Strain, grief and suffering can lead to post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder — psychological conditions we customarily associate with battle veterans and police officers in high-crime areas.
McMahan points to a study of the effects of the 2003 SARS epidemic on medical staff members at a hospital in Beijing. Ten percent of respondents showed high levels of post-traumatic stress. The rates were highest among those who worked in high-risk areas or those with relatives who had become infected. “Three years after they were initially diagnosed with PTS symptoms,” the report said, “40% of those sampled still showed symptoms.”
Can this be treated? Unlike the pandemic, which involves a virus health professionals have never faced before, the mental health problems it is spawning are familiar, predictable and treatable. Today, telemedicine and telepsychiatry are available. “It's important for people to know that there are resources out there, even without leaving home,” said Dr. Matthew Runyan of Parkview Behavioral Health
When should you ask for help? “When anxiety begins to impede your ability to function,” McMahan said. “Don't wait until it gets to the point that you are incapacitated,” she said. Seek help “when you feel, 'I'm not myself,' ” for a period of time.
What if I can't afford treatment? This concern may be even more common now, with many falling behind financially or losing their job during the statewide shutdown. But local mental-health providers say they can work with those who are uninsured or underinsured to help them find a way to receive treatment. “Money should not be a concern,” McMahan said. “That should not be a reason to not reach out for help.”
Talking and thinking about the potential mental health consequences of the pandemic now can seem like adding another layer to an already-towering mountain of concerns. But arming yourself now with the facts and resources to deal with collateral damage from mental health issues is a better strategy than merely hoping for the best.
Begin with your family doctor or pastor. Or contact:
• Parkview Behavioral Health HelpLine, 260-373-7500 or 800-284-8439, 24 hours a day.
• Bowen Center, 1-800-342-5653
• LookUpIndiana.org: a website developed by the Lutheran Foundation to address mental and substance-abuse problems. “We point people there all the time,” said Megan Hubartt of the Allen County Health Department. “It is a great local mental health resource — they offer a 24-hour hotline, chat services, and folks can put in their ZIP code to get connected to nearby mental health resources.”