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In a move that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, quarantine and social distancing have become commonplace globally as governments make concerted efforts to combat the spiraling coronavirus outbreak.
Medical experts believe that the measures that have seen citizens encouraged or forced to stay in their homes are necessary to reduce the spread of the virus. But, the implications for people's mental well-being cannot be overlooked.
A recent study in the medical journal The Lancet notes that the psychological impact of quarantine can be great, resulting in a variety of mental health problems, from anxiety and anger to sleep disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ). In fact, separate studies of quarantined patients from SARS, a previous coronavirus outbreak in 2003, found that between 10% and 29% suffered from PTSD.
The Lancet report found that mental health concerns could be inflamed by stressors associated with quarantine, such as fears of infection, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, lack of information, financial loss and stigma associated with contracting the disease.
That can be a problem not only for people with pre-existing mental health problems, but also for those with apparently good psychological health.
Identification of mental health problems:
The CDC notes that people should be on the lookout for signs of mental health problems in themselves and others. Symptoms can include:
- Fear and concern for your own health.
- Changes in sleeping or eating patterns.
- Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- Worsening of chronic health problems.
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.
Recognizing the problem, the World Health Organization this week released guidance on how people can protect their mental health during the outbreak.
"Humans are social animals," Professor Ian Hickie of the Brain and Mind Center at the University of Sydney told CNBC Make It. "Prolonged quarantine or social isolation (with no compensatory methods in place) will exacerbate anxiety, depression and feeling of helplessness ”.
What can governments do?
The good news is that some governments have stepped up to address those mental health stressors. The report points out that it should be done through effective communication of quarantine measures, with emphasis on their altruistic justification, while minimizing duration and ensuring sufficient supply.
"By addressing some of these stressors, governments can help mitigate the impact quarantine can have on mental health," said Dr. Marcus Tan, consultant psychiatrist with the Singapore-based Nobel Clinic for Psychological Wellbeing.
However, medical experts, including Michael Friedman, an associate professor at the Columbia School of Social Work in New York, have asked officials to do more by creating subgroups to help with behavioral health.
“For people without adequate resources, the so-called 'outages' are catastrophes. The impact on their mental health will be terrible, ”Friedman said, highlighting extended telemedical services as a source of relief for people with existing mental or substance abuse disorders.
Already in the US, new funding rules are being introduced to make these services reimbursable. But Jayashri Kulkarni, a professor of psychiatry at Monash University in Melbourne, said such mental health services should be more available to the public.
“There is a prevailing belief that any crisis is dealt with first with physical problems, then with mental health problems much later. I challenge this point of view because we need the public to be mentally strong to face the challenges that lie ahead, ”he said.
What can employers do?
In addition to governments, employers also have a role to play in safeguarding the health of their employees and providing them with guarantees at this time, said Ronni Zehavi, CEO of the human resources platform Hibob.
"Transparency is key in times of distress, so workplaces and human resource teams specifically need to practice clear communication and disseminate updates on the virus and current protocols," Zehavi said.
He added that companies should inform their staff about time and attendance measures so that they are "fully aware of expectations" and do not go in and out unnecessarily at home.
What can people do?
However, as more and more people face the possibility of several weeks of quarantine or social distancing, people will also have to establish their own ways to preserve their mental health at home.
CNBC Make It compiled the advice of experts in psychology, as well as several health agencies, to discover their best advice:
- Create a routine: change your pajamas, shower, and do all the things you want to accomplish each day to create a sense of normalcy and productivity.
- End Your Day: Find tasks to end your day, and when possible, change your environment for different activities.
- Take care of your body: eat healthy, get enough sleep, and exercise every day. That could include taking indoor exercise classes, stretching, and meditation practice.
- Help Others: If you are not under strict isolation rules and are in a position to do so, find ways to support those in need by offering to run errands and picking up supplies for them.
- Stay Connected - Get the most out of technology and stay in touch with colleagues, friends, and family through phone calls, text messages, social media, and video conferences.
- Limit media consumption: Stay informed about the situation through reliable sources, but limit your consumption of news and social media to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
- Prepare Medical Supplies - The National Alliance on Mental Illness advises, when necessary, asking your doctor for extended prescription drug supplies to assist you during quarantine periods.
- Fight boredom: Make the most of catching up on TV shows, reading, and exploring projects you've put off to beat boredom and stay mentally active.
- Avoid Burnout - Set strict limits for your work to avoid feeling overwhelmed and to make time to relax.
- Focus on the positive - Amplify the good news and honor the caregivers who work tirelessly to resolve the situation.
- Take one day at a time - try not to project too much into the future. Remember that these are temporary measures and that you are not alone.
"My advice? Always the same, ”Friedman said. "Stay in touch with people, virtually, participate in activities that give you pleasure and a sense of meaning, and do what you can to help others, which is a remarkable antidote to depression."