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Psychiatrists Can Prepare for Pandemics

What psychiatrists can do to prepare for the coming pandemic

By Col. (Ret.) Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD, MPH, Clinical Psychiatry News, March 10, 2020
[Note: The headline is somewhat misleading.  This article is valuable for psychiatrists to prepare for the pandemic that is already here as well as all future pandemics.]
Coronavirus fever is gripping the world. What I hope to do here is open a discussion of what psychiatrists and other clinicians can do to mitigate the psychological consequences of COVID-19. I am focusing on the right now.

The psychological consequences are fear of the disease, effects of possible quarantine, and the potential effects of the economic slowdown on the world economy.

Fear of the disease is gripping the nation. With invisible diseases, that is not irrational. If you do not know whether you are exposed and/or spreading it to coworkers, children, or aged parents, then the fear of contagion is logical. So I would not “poo-poo” the “worried well.” If you do not know whether you are exposed or contagious, anxiety is a legitimate concern – especially if you have parents in nursing homes.

The quarantine issue is harder. I have long thought that quarantine would be harder to implement in the United States than in nations like China. But self or home quarantine is currently the de facto solution for those who have been exposed. What are some remedies?

For everybody, having an adequate supply of basic supplies at home is essential. As in preparing for a snowstorm or hurricane, adequate food, water, and yes, toilet paper, is important to relieve anxiety.
Psychiatrists can encourage patients to have an adequate supply of their medications. That may mean that we prescribe more pills. If the patient has suicidal tendencies, we can ask other family members to safeguard those medications.

A salient question is how likely people who are addicted to alcohol or opiates are to stay in place if they are withdrawing. In previous presentations, delivered some 20 years ago, I have (facetiously) suggested horse-drawn wagons of beer to avoid people breaking quarantine in search of the substances they are physically dependent on.

For people in methadone clinics who require daily visits that kind of approach may be harder. I do not have a solution, other than to plan for the eventuality of large-scale withdrawal and the behavioral consequences, which, unfortunately, often involve crime. Telemedicine may be a solution, but we are not yet equipped for it.
The longer-term psychological impacts of a major economic slowdown are not yet known. Based on past epidemics and other disasters, they might include unemployment and the related consequences of domestic violence and suicide.

COVID-19 is spreading fast. As clinicians, we must take steps to protect ourselves and our patients. Because this is a new virus, we have a lot to learn about it. We must be agile, because our actions will need to change over time.

Dr. Ritchie is chair of psychiatry at Medstar Washington Hospital Center and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, Washington.
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