Given the profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, this topic deserves early — and often — attention from individuals and leaders who can help mitigate the damage done to their own well-being and that of others, said a trauma psychiatrist. and disasters.
The psychiatric impact of the pandemic is likely to have a long tail, but there are evidence-based interventions that can reduce distress and increase resilience. Capt. Joshua S. Morganstein, MD, Associate Director of the Center for Traumatic Stress Studies at the University of Law Enforcement Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, discussed these and other strategies during the AMA STEPS Forward.® Webinar on Protecting Mental Health in Disasters: COVID-19 and Beyond.
“The effects of the crisis and natural disaster on mental health are enormous. Much of what happens to people requires a collaborative and coordinated approach,” said Dr. Morganstein. “The things we really need to focus on and make sure we’re prepared are the mechanisms by which peers, organizations and leaders can provide ways to support individuals in the community early and often.”
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Doctors, of course, know how to refer patients for treatment of mental disorders. But, according to him, it is necessary with natural disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic adopt an approach that focuses on well-being and prevention, in addition to ultimately treating disease.
“Such approaches protect health and improve functioning,” Dr. Morganstein said.
One way to reduce stress is through an intervention that promotes the development of the five core elements known as “psychological emergency.” According to Dr. Morganstein, it is an evidence-based framework that supports the resilience of individuals, communities, and organizations.
- Social connections.
Vietnamese fighter pilot, POW and Medal of Honor recipient Rear Admiral James Stockdale “described the tension between the idea of maintaining a sense of hope and recognizing and addressing the reality before us,” Dr. Morganstein said. “Both are critical to our ability to weather a protracted crisis, maintain a vision for a better future, and perhaps become even stronger.”
Here are some ways to encourage psychological or first aid for stress personally, at work and in society.
Limit access to the media. Too much media is invariably linked to poorer mental health. People who consume more media during disasters are more likely to feel insecure, use more alcohol and tobacco, have more symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression, and sleep less.
Communicate thoughtfully. The words people use have power and a profound effect on society’s well-being and risk perception. Messages designed using effective crisis communications and delivered in a trusted voice help people feel calm and safe.
Create a friend system. This is a peer support program that is more formal and can be especially helpful in areas where people are less likely to seek help, such as in health care settings. Research shows that healthcare professionals are more likely to seek support from trusted colleagues.
Implement a mental health professional. In a practice adapted from the military, the mental health professional works as part of a team, acting more like a trusted colleague than a clinician. The professional provides support, directs people to resources, and helps them take steps towards self-care and advocacy.
Prepare for reintegration. After prolonged and stressful situations, some workers experience difficulties similar to military personnel returning from business trips. For example, they may have a reduced sense of the importance of routine things, or they may be more annoyed by routine, everyday worries. Anticipate re-entry issues and provide training to help reduce their stress and improve their performance.
“Crisis leadership includes both keeping a vision of where things should go and taking action to accelerate recovery in the moment,” Dr. Morganstein said. “During any crisis, it’s important to remind yourself and others that this will end and most people will be fine.”