The New Mental Health Research on Coronavirus
What researchers are saying about the disease's impact on mental health
Posted March 5, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
By Jack Meeker
Coronavirus has been at the forefront of the news cycle for several consecutive weeks now. Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has been affecting people worldwide, especially vulnerable populations like the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions.
At the time of this writing, the World Health Organization has reported over 93,000 confirmed cases and 3,200 deaths across 77 countries worldwide. The rising numbers may feel overwhelming, but faithful work across all sectors is being done day and night to put a stop to the disease.
Due to its highly infectious and mobile nature, coronavirus affects both individuals and societies, prompting researchers to assess the virus from all angles. The following is a recap of what mental health researchers have published in The Lancet Psychiatry and elsewhere.
Urgent mental health needs exist
How does COVID-19 compare to the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China? What mental health response improvements have been made since previous disease outbreaks? Where should the focus of the mental health response be? The authors of this paper explore the place of patient mental health in the coronavirus outbreak.
- call for multidisciplinary mental health teams to organize and go to patients and healthcare workers to offer psychological support
- advocate for rapid and accurate dissemination of information to all parties involved to assuage fear and uncertainty
- show that secure and accessible electronic counseling services should be created as avenues for more rapid mental healthcare
- suggest mental health screenings should be done with both patients and medical workers to check for anxiety, depression, and suicidality
Quarantine can take a long-lasting negative toll
Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of the toll quarantine takes on people’s mental health. The authors note that psychological responses to quarantine are predominantly negative. Results from the analyzed studies show that the loss of liberty, fear of infection, and length of separation created an environment that often brought about post-traumatic stress, detachment, insomnia, and anger. These results were found among patients and medical workers, even months and years post-quarantine.
The researchers of this study propose several important tactics to mitigate the negative mental health risks of quarantine. Quarantines need to be as short as possible, providing adequate supplies and information along the way. They should also be operated with the patients in mind, with measures to reduce boredom and improve communication channels.
Reform is happening among Chinese healthcare workers
The authors of this study reveal the disastrous mental health consequences of coronavirus for medical workers in Wuhan. This report explains how the workers fighting the virus are often the ones who bear most of the pressure in responding. It explains how pressure comes in the form of overworking, isolation, frustration, and even discrimination that ultimately culminates in anxiety, depression, and stress.
However, these researchers provide a detailed report of the work officials in Wuhan have done to address the problem. They give an account of policies that have been implemented to bring in healthcare workers from other areas, organize logistics strategies, and create online information platforms to alleviate pressure on current workers.
The researchers also outline the newly developed psychological intervention teams set up and sent out to monitor and support medical workers on the ground. The authors conclude that their publication marked the first time guidance for the psychological protection of healthcare workers has been produced by China.
Medical workers need stress management training
This study was published in 2007 in response to the 2003 SARS outbreak. With the benefit of hindsight, the researchers were able to assess medical workers from two Hong Kong acute care hospitals during the outbreak and one year after. The authors compared medical workers at high and low risk of contracting SARS and measured for stress, depression, and anxiety caused by treating the outbreak.
The results were significant and showed that high-risk workers had chronic stress along with higher levels of anxiety and depression. The researchers suggest that medical workers receive stress management training as part of the effort to mitigate mental health consequences from disease outbreaks.
What can we do?
During this critical time, we must remain calm and informed as we gather information from reliable sources. At a higher level, we can advocate for an increased focus on mental health in the coronavirus response. On a personal level, we can seek to support those who are struggling with anxiety or fear because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health during this time due to anxiety or fear, read our recent post about how to stay emotionally healthy during the coronavirus outbreak.
Jack Meeker is a graduate student pursuing an M.A. in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership at the Wheaton College Graduate School (IL). He currently works at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute helping manage Dr. Jamie Aten’s Psychology Today blog, "Hope and Resilience.”
Brooks, S.K., Webster, R.K., Smith, L.E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G.J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30460-8.
Kang, L.J., Li, Y., Hu, S.H., Chen, M., Yang, C., Yang, B.X., Wang, Y., Hu, J.B., Lai, J.B., Ma, X.C., Chen, J., Guan, L.L., Wang, G.H., Ma, H., & Liu, Z.C. (2020). The mental health of medical workers in Wuhan, China dealing with the 2019 novel coronavirus. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7 (3), e14. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30047-X.
McAlonan, G. M., Lee, A. M., Cheung, V., Cheung, C., Tsang, K. W., Sham, P. C., … Wong, J. G. (2007). Immediate and Sustained Psychological Impact of an Emerging Infectious Disease Outbreak on Health Care Workers. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 52(4), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1177/070674370705200406.
Xiang, Y.T., Yang, Y., Li, W., Zhang, L., Zhang, Q., Cheung, T., & Ng, C.H. (2020). Timely mental health care for the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak is urgently needed. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7(3), 228-229. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30046-8.