Is the Coronavirus Impacting Our Mental Health?

We need to take care of ourselves and others.

Posted Mar 10, 2020

I am currently writing this as I sit at an international border after a foreign medical aid assignment. During this particular trip, I witnessed patients stealing masks from health care professionals and selling them on the streets. Years ago, when I was working in East Africa, I witnessed hospital nurses selling mosquito nets that were donated by the Bush administration in the local markets. History repeats itself, and humans have a tendency to repeat their same behavioral patterns, especially when anxiety and fear are at the forefront.

It is nearly impossible to read the news, scroll through social media, have a conversation, or engage in regular daily activities without hearing about the world-famous coronavirus. This virus, which was first discovered in China in December 2019 and has spread to more than 70 countries, has killed more than 3,000 individuals and has sickened tens of thousands of people in a matter of months.

Sure, it is easy to compare coronavirus to influenza A and B and laugh at the many memes that are circulating online poking fun at the hysteria associated with this deadly virus. Many millennials are capitalizing on cheap flights and saying, "Hey, if I die, then I die." What many people are forgetting is that lives have been lost because of this deadly virus. If your grandmother or father died after being infected with coronavirus, would you continue to laugh? 

This virus is no longer about you becoming infected; it is more about you being a vessel of contact with others. This is about you potentially spreading the virus to those who cannot survive it. This is about caring for each other.

This is a pandemic that should be taken seriously; however, the lines between hysteria and educated precautions have been blurred.

Hysteria vs. educated precautions

If you chat with seven different friends, you will experience a range of responses, from those who are stockpiling masks, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer, and those who are furiously washing their hands and canceling travel plans, to those who have zero interest in or opinion about the virus.

Although there is no cure or vaccine to date for the COVID-19, this pandemic has led to a crash in the stock market, empty grocery store shelves, unnecessary stockpiling, anxiety, xenophobia, political controversy, and many lives lost.

Many argue that some precautions people are taking are excessive.

It is actually surreal to see the sheer panic this pandemic has caused. People are stocking up on toilet paper, canned food, hand sanitizer, and bottled water. Flights are being grounded, the stock market is in the toilet, sporting events have been canceled, popular tourist destinations are closed, and many individuals are choosing to self-quarantine in hopes they do not catch this deadly virus. Most grocery stores are placing strict limits on how many containers of hygiene products an individual may purchase.

Yes, the CDC has proven that young, healthy adults are less likely to exhibit any symptoms if they become infected. Older adults or individuals with compromised immune systems are most likely to take the biggest hits. However, this does not mean that young, healthy adults who are asymptomatic carriers cannot pass this virus to their elderly parent or grandparent.

I am not sure if buying 50 gallons of hand sanitizer and 450 rolls of toilet paper is the answer, but I am fairly confident that hand washing, good hygiene, and limiting air travel as much as possible is the best way to get control of this virus. Every pandemic eventually comes to a halt, but it is a matter of when and how many lives will be taken before this happens.

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but it is our responsibility to keep each other safe. This often means listening to health care professionals who have extensive years of training and knowledge of communicable diseases.

When social media influencers are talking about living their best life and buying cheap airfare, I often wonder if this is a good idea…

I struggle with this because I am a trained physician. I watch social media influencers tell others that they should live their best life and travel. I am present on social media. I have worked abroad for years in rural medical clinics. I understand the seriousness of a viral pandemic, but I also wince at the hysteria, and how it is affecting our mental health. I do not want to stand on a soapbox, but I also understand from an evidence-based perspective what is happening here...

Defining a pandemic

When an epidemic spreads beyond a country's borders, that's when the disease officially becomes a pandemic. Examples of past pandemics include tuberculosis, influenza, and smallpox. When humans became more civilized, and trade routes came into existence, our world saw an increase in pandemics. Why? Because humans are able to move between cities, countries, and continents, bringing communicable diseases with them (hence why flying on airplanes and boarding cruise ships is controversial at this time).

Vaccinations have had an enormous impact on curbing pandemics, but usually, many lives are lost before a vaccine can be made. Below is a list of historical pandemics that flooded the world.

  • 11th century: Leprosy grew into a pandemic during the Middle Ages when it spread around Europe. Leprosy is a slow-growing bacterium that causes sores and deformities, often leaving individuals permanently deformed. It was once thought that leprosy was a curse from God for man to be ostracized. Today, it still affects tens of thousands of individuals around the world (mainly in developing countries) and can be fatal if not appropriately treated with antibiotics.
  • 1665: The Great Plague of London, aka the Bubonic Plague, was the second recorded bubonic plague, and it killed 20 percent of London's population. This plague tapered off in 1666 when the Great Fire of London swept through the city. During this plague, mass graves were being built as people were slaughtering hundreds and thousands of cats and dogs, thinking that these animals were the carriers.
  • 1918: The Spanish Flu was an avian-borne flu (sound familiar?) that resulted in 50 million deaths worldwide. It was believed that this flu originated in China and spread via Chinese laborers on railways to Europe and Canada. Hundreds of thousands of Americans die.
  • 2002: SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, is an illness caused by one of the seven coronaviruses that can infect humans (sounds familiar?). It began in China and spread to 26 countries, infecting over 8,000 individuals and taking 774 lives. The SARS outbreak came to a halt due to intense quarantine and isolation regimens.

Other pandemics, including the Black Death, cholera, smallpox, Russian flu, and Hong Kong flu, spread quickly across the world, infecting individuals and taking innocent lives. Mobility and vaccines had the largest impact on pandemics in the opposite effects. Mobility made these diseases spread faster, while vaccinations helped prevent transmission. This COVID-19 is not the first time we have seen a pandemic, yet it seems we are once again hysterical, running in circles and unable to control our anxiety.

The social and mental impacts of pandemics

Pandemics do not just affect our physical health and mortality rates. Stigma and xenophobia are two aspects of the societal impacts of pandemic infectious outbreaks. Unfortunately, many Chinese individuals have been shunned and ridiculed because the coronavirus started in "their country." 

Chinese restaurants in major U.S. cities have lost business. Xenophobia against individuals of Asian descent because of this virus has not gone unnoticed. This is hate and racism to the core. 

Medical mistrust seems to be more rampant when a pandemic is present. The public is wary of any medical advice put out by medical organizations, and many individuals claim that these pandemics are conspiracy theories, leading many to ignore protocols and recommendations. This also leads to fear and anxiety.

The combination of stigma, xenophobia, unnecessary hoarding, and fearmongering can potentially lead to poor sleep, irritable mood, vulnerability, and many anxiety-related behaviors. Not to mention what this can do to individuals who are already struggling with mental health disorders, specifically ones characterized by psychosis and compulsions. 

  • Excessive cleaning and washing can exacerbate the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Hoarding emergency items can exacerbate the symptoms of compulsive shopping disorder.
  • Fearmongering and talking about conspiracy theories can potentially worsen psychotic episodes among individuals who are struggling with schizophrenia.
  • Becoming entrenched in the pandemonium on social media and the news outlets can worsen any type of anxiety disorder.

Fearmongering or not…

Fearmongering: The spread of frightening and exaggerated rumors of impending danger to purposely arouse fear in order to manipulate the public.

This pandemic has created a stir of anxiety, a need to stockpile supplies for months at a time, and a swirl of fear across the globe. However, it isn't as if this virus is made up. It is a reality. There is a virus that is spreading around the world, killing people.

Does this mean that you should run to the grocery store and empty the shelves? Does this mean that you should talk to your doctor and ask his opinion? Does this mean that you should follow CDC recommendations and wash your hands? Does this mean that you should not travel? Does this mean that you should be worried about your financial future?

It seems that it is becoming more challenging to stay calm, remember the science, and do what we can to protect ourselves without allowing fear and anxiety to overrun our lives.

We are good risk-takers, but not good risk assessors

Humans are not great at assessing risks. We usually rely on experts when it comes to risky business, such as purchasing real estate, starting a business, buying stocks, or completing our taxes. Humans are emotional creatures, and many of us are continuously hung up on anxiety and fear.

We plan for the worst. We are told to have a living will, a beneficiary, plan our funeral, and take care of all end-of-life plans while we are still living. Yes, this is responsible, but it is still on the brink of planning for the worst. So when a deadly virus comes our way, it is almost natural for us to freak out, when in reality, careful planning and smart precautions are all we need.

Thinking smart and taking care of our mental health

This is not the first pandemic that has hit the globe, and it most likely will not be the last. We have a surplus of evidence-based resources we can rely on to help guide our actions during this trying time.

We need to take action to keep our fear and anxiety in check. We need to take care of others and ourselves. We need to enjoy life. We need to listen to our doctors and global health organizations. We need to not only take care of our physical health but our mental health as well.

  • Stay connected in the community: Stay in touch with friends and family, attend your daily activities, and don't be afraid to rely on others for emotional support.
  • Try not to make assumptions.
  • Follow reputable sources about the outbreak.
  • Keep your mental health in check.
  • Be cautious of social media and news stories.
  • Talk to your children about this pandemic.
  • If you are quarantined, engage in activities that bring you joy, such as reading a book, doing a new art project, reaching out to friends on social media, watching a movie, learning a new language. Being quarantined can be isolating for many individuals (trust me, I have been there), but there are plenty of things that you can do to keep yourself occupied and still stay connected with your loved ones.
  • Talk about it: There is a plethora of interesting science facts, genetics, and history behind this pandemic. From a genetic and epidemiological standpoint, it is a very interesting virus.