ANXIETY AND STRESS DISORDERS
It’s easy to blame, it’s easy to politicize, it’s harder to tackle a problem together and find solutions together.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, MSc
Infectious pandemics and the spread of organisms across countries and continents have been facilitated by global changes in earth’s climate and an increase in travel and international exchange. COVID-19, the infection caused by the novel coronavirus detected in December 2019, is now affecting more than 27 countries, raising concerns of widespread panic and increasing anxiety in individuals subjected to the (real or perceived) threat of the virus. Importantly, these concerns arise with all infections, including the flu and other agents, and the same universal precautions are needed and indicated for safety and the prevention of further transmission. However, media coverage has highlighted COVID-19 as a unique threat, rather than one of many, which has added to panic, stress, and the potential for hysteria.
Pandemics are not just a medical phenomenon; they affect individuals and society on many levels, causing disruptions. Stigma and xenophobia are two aspects of the societal impact of pandemic infectious outbreaks. Panic and stress have also been linked to outbreaks. As concerns over the perceived threat grow, people may start to collect (and hoard) masks and other medical supplies. This is often followed by anxiety-related behaviors, sleep disturbances, and overall lower perceived state of health. Individuals with mental illness may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of widespread panic and threat.
Related content: Fears, Outbreaks, and Pandemics: Lessons Learned
Chronic disease, including chronic infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), are associated with higher levels of mental disorders as compared with the general population.1,2 Studies show depression rates usually soar after infections (eg, herpes exposure and anthrax scares).3,4 Although the effects of the coronavirus on mental health have not been systematically studied, it is anticipated that COVID-19 will have rippling effects, especially based on current public reactions. Psychiatrists are uniquely situated to help both their patients and the greater community understand the potential impact of the virus and help patients, families, and society deal with this latest threat.
Dr Moukaddam is Associate Professor, Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Baylor College of Medicine, Ben Taub Adult Outpatient Services Director, Medical Director, STAR (Stabilization, Treatment, and Rehabilitation) Program for Psychosis, Houston, TX. Dr Shah is Professor & Executive Vice Chair, Barbara & Corbin J. Robertson Jr. Chair in Psychiatry at Menninger, Chief of the Division of Community Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine. They report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
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