Is COVID-19 Leading to a Mental Illness Pandemic?

We are in the midst of an epidemic and possibly pandemic of anxiety and distress. The worry that folks have about themselves, families, finances, and work is overwhelming for millions.

I speak with people who report periods of racing thoughts jumping back in time and thinking of roads not taken. They also talk about their thoughts jumping forward with life plans of what they’ll do to change their lives in the future – if they survive COVID-19.

Consider what this uncertainty is doing to people who have an underlying emotional problem that is well-controlled with care (and even without care). Those people are suffering even more. Meanwhile, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder that had been under control appear to have worsened with the added stress.

Social distancing has disrupted our everyday routines. For many, there is no work, no spending time with people we care about, no going to movies or shows, no doing discretionary shopping, no going to school. Parents with children at home report frustration about balancing working from home with completing home-schooling packets. Physicians on the front lines of this unprecedented time report not having the proper protective equipment and worrying about the possibility of exposing their families to SARS-CoV-2.

We hear stories about the illness and even deaths of some young and middle-aged people with no underlying conditions, not to mention the loss of older adults. People are bursting into tears, and becoming easily frustrated and angry. Add in nightmares, ongoing anxiety states, insomnia, and decreased concentration.

We are seeing news reports of people stocking up on guns and ammunition and a case of one taking – and dying from – nonpharmaceutical grade chloroquine in an effort to prevent COVID-19.

I spoke with Juliana Tseng, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in New York, and she said that the hype, half-truths, and false information from some outlets in the popular media are making things worse. Dr. Tseng added that the lack of coordination among local, state, and federal governments also is increasing fear and alienation.

As I see this period in time, my first thoughts are that we are witnessing a national epidemic of trauma. Specifically, what we have here is a clinical picture of PTSD.

PTSD is defined clearly as a traumatic disorder with a real or perceived fracture with life. Isolation (which we are creating as a way to «flatten the curve» or slow the spread of COVID-19), although that strategy is in our best personal and public health interests, is both painful and stressful. Frustration, flashbacks of past life experiences plus flashbacks of being ill are reported in people I’ve spoken with. Avoidance, even though it is planned in this instance, is part of the PTSD complex.



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