The evolution and rapid, unprecedented spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has caused devastating consequences, not just for those at high risk, vulnerable or infected, but for the entire population of the USA, and beyond.

As providers of mental health care solutions, we will undoubtedly see the consequences of this pandemic in our places of work for many decades to come. It is our duty working within the mental health and addictions fields to do all we can during this pandemic to ensure that these individuals needing support before the crisis, are not left without support during it. We also need to be putting plans in place to try to restrict the inevitable increase of mental health problems that will be a consequence of this event in history.

Much attention has focused on the economic impact of the virus; unemployment is estimated to increase by a staggering 28 million , or one in six U.S. workers[1], and economists are predicting this will cause a bigger state of destitution than the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as even services such as hairdressing, dentistry and restaurants have been forced to close due to fears of continued activity risking spreading the virus further.

However, what has not been addressed enough in the mainstream media is the heightened risk of trauma and mental health issues increasing during this time. For example, there is likely to be a higher prevalence of domestic abuse; a common by-product of financial strain on relationships, which is now far more likely to be witnessed by children as schools close. These far reaching implications of the health crisis must be recognized as serious societal issues; advice on who to contact in cases of extreme stress should be made available for those who feel like they are at risk of abuse, or at risk of becoming abusive as a result of the immeasurable pressure on the country at this time.

Equally adding to the psychological impact this pandemic is having, are the news reports on the escalating number of cases of the virus and deaths as a result of the virus are wide-spread. Several states have raised concern over the insufficient supply for the demand of ventilators, face masks and other protective equipment which are crucial for treating and preventing infection[2]. Each day a new plethora of information is published, and the compulsion to ingest as much information as possible is having a detrimental effect on psychological wellbeing. It has been recognized that there is often conflicting information published to fill the void of straightforward government advice; while the majority of official announcements are done through twitter which only reaches twitter users, unlikely to be the older population who are most at risk. Information is reaching people through the grapevine, leading many people to doubt what is being told to them, becoming suspicious and becoming overwhelmed by conspiracy theories flooding social media. Tighter controls are needed by these platforms to reduce scaremongering and potentially lethal misinformation. Furthermore, those suffering from paranoia may find conspiracy theories trigger and solidify previous distorted thinking patterns, leading to tragic consequences.

While these news stories circulate social media and news feeds around the country, few reports or government backed advice have been published or broadcasted to focus on the increasing sense of dread and helplessness, fueled by the overwhelming and rapidly evolving reports on current and future financial and health implications. Nearly a quarter of Americans are being advised to stay indoors as much as possible[3]; solitude, social isolation and a lack of routine are understood to be significant triggers for those suffering from psychological disorders such as addiction, depression, anxiety or disordered eating. Furthermore, even those who do not have underlying psychological disorders are at risk of suffering from anxiety, depression, fear, disempowerment, relationship breakdowns and dependency or addiction to drugs and alcohol.

During such unprecedented times, those who usually receive treatment or support for psychological disorders may be left without their support system as social distancing and recommended quarantine mean support meetings or therapy sessions are cancelled, and treatment centers impose restrictions that disrupt treatment plans. As more and more people are instructed to stay indoors, people are unable to take part in social activities such as sports or other hobbies which they may rely on to cope with stress or abstain from drugs and alcohol. This, on top of the existing opioid crisis engulfing the country illustrates the scale of demand on support and treatment services and their staff.

Front-line healthcare staff face far higher risks of developing psychological conditions as a result of repeated exposure to illness, and the sense of tragedy as a result. As the death toll increases they will be responsible for relaying this to their families and dealing with the fear and anxiety facing those diagnosed with the virus, and their loved ones. People working in these roles will be expected to work longer shifts than usual with limited resources to treat patients; which were already existing issues before the evolution of the virus, but now force workers to make life-changing decisions about who to treat with ventilators.

In order to improve this situation, there must be parity between advice to protect and maintain psychological health as there is physical health. We have already seen the result of neglecting mental health; rising numbers of Americans suffer from disorders with no treatment and increasing numbers are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Government advice on how to protect oneself from the inevitable consequences of living through a pandemic is vital. Expressing a level of understanding for the level of stress and anxiety the country is managing, alongside clear guidance and encouraging messages of resilience and solidarity can go a long way to reduce feelings of loneliness and desperation during such an unpredictable and unprecedented time.

As some public figures have expressed contempt for China as the source of the virus, labelling it ‘Kung Flu’ and ‘Chinese Virus’, it is crucial that elected officials remind the public to treat one another with kindness, compassion and empathy. This is especially necessary at a time when Asian Americans are subject to racist abuse in the street and discrimination.

While it would be unwise to belittle the severity of the situation we are currently facing, messages of hope, inspiration and togetherness can help remedy the inescapable messages of panic and despair. It is important that we are offered a sense of security in any form; something we can rely on and look to for support and to remind us that while this situation is unlikely to recover in the foreseeable future; there will be support along the way. Clear, straightforward information on how to take care of ourselves emotionally during this time will not only be a source of validation for many people suffering but also take some strain off mental health services in the future, when undoubtedly they will become inundated with people struggling to cope in the aftermath.

 

Sources: 

[1] https://time.com/5805526/coronavirus-economy-layoffs/ (accessed 23/3/2020)

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/21/world/coronavirus-news.html (accessed 23/3/2020)

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/21/world/coronavirus-news.html (accessed 23/3/2020)