Coronavirus pandemic: Quarantines and lockdowns can trigger PTSD, as they did with SARS outbreak
Of the 5,000 people in China who were evaluated for PTSD, 21.5% had obvious symptoms, a survey conducted by the Chinese Psychology Society found
Cut off from people and confined to a single room, life is not easy for those under quarantine in the wake of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Although control measures like quarantines do help beat the virus, they often come with distressing side effects, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD is a psychiatric disorder affecting people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. People with the condition often experience symptoms — flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety — that can last for months or years.
China adopted heavy-handed measures, including imposing lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing to control the virus. These measures helped China taste success: none of the 34 new cases recorded on 19th March had emerged out of China, meaning travelers visiting China tested positive.
But these measures did come with a heavy price. Of the 5,000 people evaluated for PTSD, 21.5% had obvious symptoms, a survey conducted by the Chinese Psychology Society found.
Realizing the importance of evaluating mental health, in February, China introduced mental health support telephone hotlines. The National Health Commission said more than 300 hotlines were in operation, thanks to university psychology departments, counseling services, and NGOs.
What is more, quarantines tend to affect individuals already prone to mental health issues. People who already have PTSD, anxiety disorders or other types of mental health issues are at a higher risk for continued or worsening of problems," Dr Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
People with pre-existing health conditions also need to watch out, she added.
PTSD during earlier quarantines
Studies have shown that people placed under quarantines during disease outbreaks experience PTSD. "Though studies on the psychological effects of quarantine are limited, research shows that patients in medical isolation can experience increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as feelings of fear, abandonment, loneliness, and stigmatization," the American Psychological Association said.
During the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, of the 129 Canadians quarantined, 28.9% showed signs of PTSD. Singapore also witnessed something similar: a study looked at 661 people from a regional general hospital and found that about 20% of them had PTSD.
Quarantines and isolations in the US
Japan quarantined passengers and crew members of the infamous Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan. Eventually, more than 700 people contracted the infection. When American passengers returned to the US, they were quarantined for the second time at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC).
To support and care for the repatriate passengers, psychologists at UNMC organized virtual town hall meetings every day. Participants included all patients and guests, as well as representatives from the medical, nursing, behavioral health and case management teams.
“Our goals are to prevent psychological deterioration using evidence-based strategies for stress management and to foster a safe community to increase social support,” Dr David Cates, a clinical psychologist and behavioral health consultant to UNMC’s Nebraska Biocontainment Unit and National Quarantine Center, said in a statement.
Additionally, psychologists held one-on-one sessions for those who request help or are flagged by a health-care worker." It’s incredible to listen to our patients and guests respond to him,” Kate Boulter, RN, nurse manager of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, said.
For those isolated at their homes, Dr Gurwitch recommends that people at risk must continue taking medications and listen to recommendations from mental health professionals.
She said: "In the US and many places, people are adopting telehealth for both mental health and physical health. Those with pre-existing mental health conditions should use distress helplines and mental health helplines. Reaching out to your mental health community is important.