With rising infection rates in the United States and numerous institutional shutdowns, the impact of the novel coronavirus outbreak has been compounded by inaccurate medical information that has stoked fear and anxiety among adults and children alike.
Healio Psychiatry spoke with Vinay Saranga, MD, founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, about the mental health impact of COVID-19 and how clinicians can help their patients manage anxiety amid the outbreak. – by Kate Burba
Question: Have you observed any mental health impact of the coronavirus among your patients?
Answer: The coronavirus is on the minds of our patients, but it certainly isn’t out of control. For the most part, people are paying attention to it, following the latest developments, keeping a close eye on it, talking about it and taking the proper precautions. I would not say there is a significant mental health impact because of it, but rather some general worry and concern, which isn’t surprising given something of this nature.
Q: What tips would you give to clinicians whose patients express worry about the coronavirus?
A: As clinicians, the best thing we can do is educate our patients on the facts. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation is circulating on social media and many people aren’t sure what to believe. It is our responsibility as health care professionals to give our patients the facts, calm their fears and speak truthfully about what we see and the greater impact of it. We must continue to remind our patients of the various measures they can take to reduce their chances of exposure to the virus.
Q: Are there any common misconceptions among patients regarding the outbreak? How should clinicians combat these misconceptions?
A: The best thing everyone can do is to make sure they are getting their information from reliable sources like the CDC. If patients have any specific questions regarding their health, they should speak with their personal physician. The biggest misconception that we are seeing is a push for widescale panic. We must be prepared, but we must also stay levelheaded. Right now, for the general public, I would be more concerned about the flu than the coronavirus. Unfortunately, we don’t have a crystal ball to know just how much of an impact or how long the coronavirus is going to be here, or if it will become a larger threat. We need to keep things in perspective and stay calm while also being prepared.
Q: What role do psychiatrists play in outbreak environments like the one we’re experiencing?
A: Psychiatrists need to continue to assess the mental health of their patients and ensure that news of the coronavirus isn’t causing more stress, anxiety or an increase in symptoms of their condition. They need to make sure that their patients know that if they start to feel that news of the coronavirus is impacting them in some way, that they need to make an appointment and see their psychiatrists and possibly other mental health providers. Perhaps a change in dose of medication or talking about it in therapy can address these concerns and symptoms.
Q: What psychiatric/mental health research should be conducted regarding outbreaks and related mental health concerns?
A: It would be interesting to conduct some research and develop a case study so the next time there is an outbreak like this, we have more of an idea how mental health patients will react, and we can be better prepared to address these concerns. I’m not certain if such research exists, but developing it could help us be more prepared in the future, not just for the sake of our patients but for the betterment of the mental health of everyone in such an environment.
Disclosure: Saranga reports no relevant financial disclosures.