Heading off a Tidal
Wave of Woe
Programs ramp up to respond to the pandemic’s effects on mental health
By Barbara Pierce
The world has been brought to its knees by a pathogen one thousandth the width of a human hair —transforming our lives in ways both saddening and surreal. And beyond the frightening, sometimes deadly course of the disease itself, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the mental health of millions of people.
“We may be flattening the curve, but there is no question that there will be a huge wave of mental health needs in the coming weeks and months,” said Barbara Coffey, M.D., M.S., chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
- Patients who narrowly skirted death from COVID-19 after days or weeks in intensive care are exhausted and disoriented, struggling to regain previous levels of mental functioning. As a further complication, the virus is sometimes associated with brain inflammation and central nervous system symptoms that are not yet well understood.
- Families mourning the loss of a loved one during the pandemic must also grieve that they could not be there in their final days, were forced to leave important things unsaid and undone, and are unable to even mourn together.
- Children confined at home, especially those with previously diagnosed mental health and behavioral disorders, may face difficulties with remote learning and stressful family dynamics.
- College students who have had to leave campus to shelter in place at home have seen their once-blossoming lives nipped in the bud, their next steps uncertain.
- People already being treated for anxiety or depression may experience aggravated symptoms during this stressful time, especially if they are confined and alone.
- The seeming randomness of people of every age falling fatally ill, sometimes after fleeting encounters with asymptomatic carriers, adds to the extant anxiety.
Though the mental health impacts of COVID-19 may bear some resemblance to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), “We have some precedents, but not at this scale and level of pervasiveness,” Dr. Coffey said.