By this point in time, we’ve all come to understand the various risks and symptoms of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, yet what we aren’t talking about are the implications of Social Distancing on our mental health. For this very important post, I’ve enlisted a very special guest blogger, Dr. P. Joseph Resignato, Philadelphia Psychiatrist, to weigh-in regarding the psychological effects we and our children are potentially facing of Social Distancing. For more on Joey and his psychiatry practice, be sure to visit The Art of Wellness. If you enjoy this post and would like to see more about mental wellness please let me know in the comments below.
Within a couple of months since COVID-19 first developed across the world this strain of the Corona Virus has fully infiltrated US borders. Cases in the states went from ~500 to ~3,000 within the past week and at this rate 3 million people will have been infected by this time next month. Schools have closed, sports are cancelled, and our local grocery store shelves are bare as my 2.5 year old daughter as she jumps on my back in her latest attempt to thwart my doing something productive. These next few weeks will be tough for parents and kids alike.
Many experts are suggesting our delayed response is causing the explosion in cases we will see in the next days to weeks. Nonetheless, as my family has cancelled social activities and are preparing to tough it out at home for the foreseeable future, I think it’s safe to say most people are on board at this point with the fact we will have to isolate for the greater good of society (as well as for ourselves).
The benefits of social distancing have been discussed at large. However, the psychological consequences of widespread quarantine have not yet popped up on my news and social media feeds. A renowned british medical journal named The Lancet, however, published an article last month in which Samantha Brooks PhD and her colleagues reviewed research that has been done about this very topic. As a parent, breaking it down for other parents will be critical in what we can do for our kids and ourselves during this time.
Dr. Brooks analyzed information collected between 24 research articles where people who had been quarantined were studied. These studies came after outbreaks such as SARS, H1N1, and Ebola. Since we will have to isolate en masse anyway, it may be beneficial to recognize what negative consequences this may have so that we can do our best to mitigate those effects.
Negative Effects and Stressors
Post-traumatic stress, anger, and confusion turn out to be scientifically proven major consequences of quarantine. In a study that came out of a SARS outbreak, being quarantined was THE BIGGEST predictor of acute (short-term) stress disorder (the precursor to post-traumatic stress disorder). Compared with those who were not isolated, those quarantined were more likely to say they were exhausted, detached, anxious, irritable, sleepless, indecisive, and in consideration of resignation. Some of these effects were shown to exist up to 3 years later.
Who’s Most at Risk
The article mentions three populations of people who are most likely to be psychologically impacted by quarantine:
1) Parents of 1 or 2 children (3+ seem to be protective)
2) Kids (other than college students)
3) Healthcare workers
Factors that Affect Mental Health During Quarantine
There are several stressors in particular the article highlights as being impactful during a quarantine:
Duration of quarantine – shorter = better
Fears of infection – people who were quarantined were more worried
Frustration and boredom – confinement, loss of routine, reduced contact with people caused boredom, frustration, and the feeling of being isolated. No one knows these feelings better than kids stuck in a house.
Inadequate supplies – food, water, clothes, medical care, prescriptions.
Inadequate information – not being given adequate explanation for why or clarity about the seriousness of the situation.
How to Reduce Psychological Effects
So what can we do? As each of our families faces quarantine to reduce the risks of contracting and spreading the Coronavirus, Dr. Brooks put together a list of recommendations based off of the information she gathered that she hopes could reduce the psychological effects of quarantine that can be applied.
Keep it ASAP (as short as possible) – This is somewhat out of our control. Take walks and play outside while safely distancing yourself from others.
Obtain as much information as possible. Monitor news sources to ensure you’re not getting fake news. The CDC.gov may be a reliable resource for information.
Have adequate supplies and food on hand.
Reduce boredom and improve communication – activate your social network (remotely) NOW. FaceTime with friends and family and join online communities.
Practice Altruism – voluntary isolation is better than mandatory isolation. Although difficult, feel good about being part of the solution.
With all of this in mind, it’s important for us to remember that the emotional impact might be even more devastating without social distancing and quarantine and the disease fallout deepens. We must focus on what we can control and that is taking care of ourselves both physically and mentally to provide the healthiest environment as possible for both ourselves and the little ones we may be isolated with.
Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet, 395(10227), 912–920. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(20)30460-8