Google search results for the novel coronavirus have now reached over a billion (and growing rapidly). This is telling of the global concern surrounding the COVID-19 global pandemic, with fear gripping not only public health but also the economy and geopolitics. Fear, anxiety, and stress are side effects of the novel coronavirus affecting both those who are infected by the virus and those who are not.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health emergencies like COVID-19 are stressful times for people and communities. How people cope during this time, or how they react to fear, is just as important an issue to address as how to contain and control the outbreak.
Panic buying in cities affected by the virus, such as in Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong, has led to a frenzy over toilet paper in Australia, the stocking-piling of instant noodles in Singapore, and the hoarding of medical masks across the globe. Many reports of panic buying are fueled by anxiety and fear caused by COVID-19.
The COVID-19 outbreak is elevating anxiety in a world that already has high levels of mental health disorders. The World Health Organization placed mental disorders among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide, with an estimated 450 million sufferers, even before COVID-19 emerged.
But mitigating the effects of a novel disease does not necessarily need new approaches. It may take the basics, such as patient engagement—only in more innovative ways and by placing tech in the hands of patients. Harness any device the patient chooses to communicate with, whether text, voice, email, app, or wearables, to deliver that needed mental health care and support anytime, anywhere.
In a recent article, psychiatrists Nidal Moukaddam, MD/PhD, and Asim Shah, MD, state their belief that “...although the effects of the coronavirus on mental health have not been systematically studied, it is anticipated that COVID-19 will have rippling effects, especially based on current public reactions.”
To that point, WHO also added that panic and stress linked to outbreaks will grow as the threat becomes more widespread. People may worry about getting an infection or about family members getting ill. Or they may develop a paranoia around related symptoms, no matter how minor they may be. It doesn’t help that there is no definitive treatment or vaccine against this virus. Notably, most vulnerable to this anxiety are those already suffering from mental illness.
According to The Lancet Psychiatry about how timely mental health care for the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak is urgently needed, “...patients with confirmed or suspected 2019-nCoV may experience fear of the consequences of infection with a potentially fatal new virus, and those in quarantine might experience boredom, loneliness, and anger.”
The same article, authored by a group of Chinese doctors and experts, cited the established procedures for psychological crisis intervention used in the SARS outbreak that can be repurposed for COVID-19. These procedures include:
Form multidisciplinary mental health teams to deliver mental health support to patients and health workers, and provide specialized psychiatric treatments and appropriate mental health services and facilities for patients with comorbid mental disorders.
Provide clear communication with regular and accurate updates about the 2019-nCoV outbreak to both health workers and patients, in order to address their sense of uncertainty and fear. Treatment plans, progress reports, and health status updates should be given to both patients and their families.
Use electronic devices and applications through secure services to provide psychological counseling for affected patients as well as for their families and other members of the public. The use of safe communication channels between patients and families should be encouraged to decrease isolation.
Ensure that mental health workers provide regular clinical screenings for depression, anxiety, and suicidality in suspected and diagnosed COVID-19 patients as well as in hospital health professionals caring for infected patients. Timely psychiatric treatments should be provided for those presenting with more severe mental health problems.
Psychological support is needed to manage stress and anxiety during a crisis situation. In a pandemic like COVID-19, remote management and monitoring of the patient’s well-being is the most ideal—if not the only—solution to continue to provide the highest quality care possible with the lowest risk of person-to-person transmission.
To mitigate the effects of COVID-19, or of any other pandemic, epidemic, or outbreak when it comes to mental health, psychologists and psychiatrists should be in one communication loop with the healthcare team coordinating, collaborating, and monitoring their patients. This is particularly true where person-to-person transmission is a risk and community transmission is feared—remote care through technology becomes a key part of the quarantine strategy.
In China, remote care and management models for psychological intervention through technology were put in place through options like online platforms in medical institutions and universities, “...to provide psychological counseling services for patients, their family members, and other people affected by the epidemic.”
Mental health providers, including psychiatrists and psychologists, are uniquely positioned to assist the healthcare team to assess, address, and provide psychological care for patients, especially those in quarantine, their family members, and even frontline health workers. They all will benefit from real-time, accurate, and relevant information and patient education.
Communication is needed to allay anxiety and fears that cause stigma.
Communication with patients and those who may be part of any contact investigation must be personalized, secure, and private. This is top among the recommendations of the CDC to communicators and public health officials, to help counter stigma caused by fear and anxiety.
The CDC also underlined the need to “...quickly communicate the risk or lack of risk from associations with products, people, and places, to raise awareness without increasing fear and to share accurate information about how the virus spreads.”
Ongoing patient contact is vital in mental health care and management, just as it is essential in remote monitoring for those under quarantine. Technology designed for population monitoring such as LifeWIRE can manage and track insights and activity to improve care, all in a cloud-based, secure, and HIPAA-compliant technology.
When urgency calls, a practical approach comes from harnessing the power of existing health technologies. A patient communication platform with use cases in behavioral health and stress management is one such technology. #BeLifeWIREd