Commentary

Are psychiatrists more prepared for COVID-19 than we think?

Helping patients navigate surreal situations is what we do


 

A meme has been going around the Internet in which a Muppet is dressed as a doctor, and the caption declares: “If you don’t want to be intubated by a psychiatrist, stay home!” This meme is meant as a commentary on health care worker shortages. But it also touches on the concerns of psychiatrists who might be questioning our role in the pandemic, given that we are physicians who do not regularly rely on labs or imaging to guide treatment. And we rarely even touch our patients.

Dr. Jacqueline Posada

Dr. Jacqueline Posada

As observed by Henry A. Nasrallah, MD, editor in chief of Current Psychiatry, who referred to anxiety as endemic during a viral pandemic (Current Psychiatry. 2020 April;19[4]:e3-5), our society is experiencing intense psychological repercussions from the pandemic. These repercussions will evolve from anxiety to despair, and for some, to resilience.

All jokes aside about the medical knowledge of psychiatrists, we are on the cutting edge of how to address the pandemic of fear and uncertainty gripping individuals and society across the nation.

Isn’t it our role as psychiatrists to help people face the reality of personal and societal crises? Aren’t we trained to help people find their internal reserves, bolster them with medications and/or psychotherapy, and prepare them to respond to challenges? I propose that our training and particular experience of hearing patients’ stories has indeed prepared us to receive surreal information and package it into a palatable, even therapeutic, form for our patients.

I’d like to present two cases I’ve recently seen during the first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic juxtaposed with patients I saw during “normal” times. These cases show that, as psychiatrists, we are prepared to face the psychological impact of this crisis.

A patient called me about worsened anxiety after she’d been sidelined at home from her job as a waitress and was currently spending 12 hours a day with her overbearing mother. She had always used her work to buffer her anxiety, as the fast pace of the restaurant kept her from ruminating.

The call reminded me of ones I’d receive from female patients during the MeToo movement and particularly during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, in which a sexual assault victim and alleged perpetrator faced off on television. During therapy and medication management sessions alike, I would talk to women struggling with the number of news stories about victims coming forward after sexual assault. They were reliving their humiliations, and despite the empowering nature of the movement, they felt vulnerable in the shadow of memories of their perpetrators.

The advice I gave then is similar to the guidance I give now, and also is closely related to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice on its website on how to manage the mental health impact of COVID-19. People can be informed without suffering by taking these steps:

  • Limit the amount of news and social media consumed, and if possible, try to schedule news consumption into discrete periods that are not close to bedtime or other periods meant for relaxation.
  • Reach out to loved ones and friends who remind you of strength and better times.
  • Make time to relax and unwind, either through resting or engaging in an activity you enjoy.
  • Take care of your body and mind with exercise.
  • Try for 8 hours of sleep a night (even if it doesn’t happen).
  • Use techniques such as meditating, doing yoga, or breathing to practice focusing your attention somewhere.

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