Hard Talk

COVID-19: An opportunity to rehumanize psychiatry


Prior to the current crisis of COVID-19, I had a critical view of the direction of our psychiatric field. We have given up on complicated psychotherapies in favor of dispensing medications. We have given up on complicated diagnostic assessments in favor of simple self-rated symptoms questionnaires. Many of us even chose to give up on seeing patients face to face in favor of practicing telepsychiatry in the comfort of our homes. Some even promoted a future of psychiatry in which psychiatrists treated patients through large spreadsheets of evidence-based rating tools following evidence-based algorithms without even ever meeting the patients.

Dr. Nicolas Badre, a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego

Dr. Nicolas Badre

I do not view this problem as unique to psychiatry but rather as part of a larger trend in society. For the past couple of years, Vivek Murthy, MD, the former U.S. surgeon general, has popularized the idea that we are in a loneliness epidemic, saying, “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.” Despite having enumerable means to reach other human beings, so many of us feel distant and out of touch with others. This loneliness has a measurable impact on our well-being with one study that states, “Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we were confronted with the largest challenge to our sense of connectedness in my lifetime. Throughout the past months, we have been asked to meet each other less frequently, do so through sterile means, and certainly not shake hands, hug, or embrace. The COVID-19 crisis has quickly made us all experts in telepsychiatry, remote work, and doing more with less. The COVID-19 crisis has asked many of us to put aside some of our human rituals like eating together, enjoying artistic experiences as a group, and touching, for the sake of saving lives.

For many, socially distancing has been a considerable added stressor – a stressor that continues to test humanity’s ability to be resilient. I am saddened by prior patients reaching out to seek comfort in these difficult times. I am touched by their desire to reconnect with someone they know, someone who feels familiar. I am surprised by the power of connection through phone and video calls. For some patients, despite the added burden, the current crisis has been an opportunity for their mental health and a reminder of the things that are important, including calling old friends and staying in touch with those who matter the most.

Yet, as the social restrictions continue, the stressors mount and the resilience becomes harder to find. Checking in on others can become a chore. The social norm to partake in fashion, and self-care, become harder to find. In some cases, even hygiene and our health take a side role. The weekly phone visits with a therapist can feel just as mundane and repetitive as life. Sleep becomes harder to find, and food loses its taste. At this point, we realize the humanity that we lost in all this.

In the past couple of months, we have all become much more aware of the fragility of connectedness. However, we should recognize that the impact was well on its way before the COVID-19 crisis. It is my opinion that psychiatry should champion the issue of human relations. I do not think that we need to wait for a new DSM diagnosis, an evidence-based paradigm, or a Food and Drug Administration–approved medication to do so. The COVID-19 crisis has rendered us all cognizant of the importance of relationships.

While it may be that psychiatry continues to foray in electronic means of communication, use of impersonal scales and diagnosis, as well as anonymized algorithmic treatment plans, we should also promote as much humanity as society and public health safety will permit. Getting dressed to see your psychiatrist, face to face, to have an open-ended conversation about the nature of one’s life has clearly become something precious and powerful that should be cherished and protected. My hope is the rules and mandates we are required to use during the pandemic today do not become a continued habit that result in further loneliness and disconnect. If we chose to, the lessons we learn today can, in fact, strengthen our appreciation and pursuit of human connection.

Dr. Badre is a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego and an expert in correctional mental health. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. He teaches medical education, psychopharmacology, ethics in psychiatry, and correctional care. Among his writings is chapter 7 in the book “Critical Psychiatry: Controversies and Clinical Implications” (Springer, 2019). He has no disclosures.

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