It seems like one can’t check the headlines these days without some disconcerting bit of news about novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19, popping up. At least, that’s true in my hometown of San Francisco, where public health officials are now recommending social distancing.
As a mental health blogger, I naturally tend to look at the psychological side of situations – and in this case, there’s a lot to look at.
If novel coronavirus ends up leading to significant changes in daily life, that’s something that will necessarily have some kind of mental health impact. And even before any disruption of daily life, it’s easy for fear and uncertainty to take hold.
As with understanding the spread of COVID-19 itself, understanding the psychological impact of the outbreak is still in its early stages, but there’s some research on this topic already. Here are a couple studies that have been done as well as some resources on how to cope with coronavirus-related stress and anxiety.
The Mental Health Effects of Quarantine
As COVID-19 spreads, public health measures such as quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing are spreading with it.
We already have an existing body of research on quarantine and psychological outcomes, and what we know from that research suggests that we need to take the psychological effects of novel coronavirus very seriously.
That fact is highlighted in a review published recently in The Lancet titled The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce It.
According to the review, being subject to quarantine seems to be linked to a range of negative mental health effects, from depression to post-traumatic stress symptoms to substance use. Those findings apparently hold relative to people who are at a similar level of risk but not quarantined, and some of the mental health symptoms linked to quarantine were observable even years later.
The good news is that factors like making sure people under quarantine have adequate information, a reliable supply of necessary goods, and a way of staying connected with friends and family seem to make a difference. In general, the authors of the review point out that finding ways to “reduce the boredom and improve the communication” of people under quarantine should be a priority.
What’s less clear is whether similar effects apply to related but different public health measures. For example, voluntary social distancing is less restrictive than quarantine, so intuitively we might expect the effects to be less severe. On the other hand, the authors of the review point out that “imposing a cordon indefinitely on whole cities with no clear time limit” might bring additional mental health risks relative to a quarantine for a predefined period of time.
One thing that seems to be important is realizing that quarantine is an altruistic act. People who undergo quarantine or who voluntarily implement social distancing measures are doing something for the greater good, and as the authors of the review highlight, that’s something we should emphasize in how we think about quarantine.
Psychological Interventions for Affected Areas
Besides implementing public health measures to slow the spread of the virus, some areas with outbreaks have also put into place additional resources for helping people cope with the psychological challenges of the situation.
A recent paper in Psychiatry Research describes measures used in China’s Sichuan Province beginning in February 2020. Among the measures, public health officials published a novel coronavirus self-help manual written by mental health professionals and opened mental health support hotlines that operated around the clock.
According to the authors of the paper:
Since non-critical patients were advised not to come to hospitals during the outbreak, the psychological hotline and online consultation played a significant role of maintaining mental health of citizens in this outbreak
If the paper on the mental health effects of quarantine highlights the need to address the psychological consequences outbreaks might bring, these paper in Sichuan’s response offers some practical steps that governments can take in this regard.
A paper published in Psychiatry Investigation highlights another intervention that can work in that scenario: letter therapy. Here, patients communicate with therapists by responding to structured prompts online. While the authors of the paper point out that this intervention probably isn’t suitable for treating serious mental health conditions, it could potentially go a long way in coping with caronavirus-related stress in a situation where access to mental health services is limited.
Resources and Recommendations for Coping
Public health officials in the United States have already put out some information and recommendations for coping with stress related to COVID-19.
- The CDC has a page on mental health and coping during COVID-19 that contains some helpful practical tips.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has information about coping with stress during infectious disease outbreaks more generally
Should COVID-19 continue to spread in the United States, hopefully we’ll see more resources from public health officials related to novel coronavirus and mental health!