Peter Byrne has been an NHS consultant psychiatrist for over 20 years, working mostly in general hospitals.
These are worrying times: extraordinary measures to contain this pandemic have already been implemented in every country. And yes, there is uncertainty:
- Will my family get infected? Will I?
- How bad will this flu (influenza) be if we catch it?
- What will I need at home?
- Should I leave the house?
- How long will the restrictions last?
Public health experts, microbiologists, clinicians and other scientists know what happens in annual flu epidemics, they have studied historical outbreaks too and they are looking at openly shared information (data) from around the world. In official announcements, the urgent need is to reduce the spread – so the messages are negative (numbers who have been infected, numbers of deaths in each country) – to persuade us all to wash our hands with soap for 20 seconds at regular intervals and implement social distance measures of 2 meters. What we know now is NOT all negative:
- Over 80% of people who develop Corona virus have a brief illness (for a few days up to a week): they do not need to be in hospital, and they recover fully
- The main symptoms are cough (productive coughs bring up phlegm, most viral coughs are not productive), with high temperature and aches/pains
- Infected people need to rest, usually in bed: they need water (tap water) and paracetamol will help with the aches, and get their temperature down
- Even in a small home, if they stay 2 metres away from others, they will not pass it on. When ill at home, keep your distance, try to use separate cups & plates and different bathrooms & towels if you have them.
- Lots of places are closed, and our schools will close on March 20 – again, to reduce the spread. You may be at home because of advice to work at home, suspension of work, or you are not working at the moment. You have shelter, water, power, heating (outside temperature is rising – a great way to reduce flu germs) and some food. The local shops have plentiful supplies – on a short trip out, you will not be in contact with anyone long enough to get infected. No country since the first big Covid-19 outbreak last January ran out of food.
- There are e-mails and phone lines (national NHS is 111 and local GP lines) to advise you if you need medical advice: write them down just in case.
- Around 1 in 10 people get a more severe illness and become very short of breath: getting medical advice about the need to go to hospital may lead to an assessment. We have already seen many people go through even the most severe form of Covid-19, and they have been discharged home – without the need for home oxygen or any medical follow up.
- Some people are more vulnerable to the effects of the virus: yes, Older people are at higher risk. This does not mean everyone over 80 will catch it, and even if they develop infection, the international experience is that 85% of people over 80 survive. Think about that positive statistic, not the grim media output currently, or worse what’s coming from “social” media right now.
- You may have seen a graphic about an infection curve: the idea of the restrictions we all must accept is to have fewer cases in the first weeks so we don’t overwhelm the hospitals with the 10% of people with flu who need medical care. Right now, we don’t know how high our curve will be, or how quickly it will start to fall. When we know the peak of infections has passed, then we can have more certainty about when these restrictions will be relaxed.
- When will it all end? People have opinions, and the best are informed guesses. Already, by the beginning of March 2020, Chinese scientists have identified the full genetic sequence of Covid-19 and shared it with everyone. The first vaccines are being tested in human volunteers. Real progress like this, and other positives (looking out for one another, stories of kindness), do not make the headlines, get on the talk radio/TV shows or get shared on “social” media.
How might this affect mental health?
The good news is that the virus does not appear to have any direct effects on mental health. Fears of catching it, our loved ones getting sick, what might happen, or thousands of “worst case scenarios” are all a greater challenge right now than the virus itself. This is not an argument that some people “worry too much” about all of this – this is about reducing the time you spend in a state of “high alert” with high levels of unproductive anxiety.
What can you change to protect your mental health during isolation?
Sleep better: there is a considerable body of science that understands why stressed people sleep less (and badly), and how to reverse this: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/how-to-get-to-sleep/ Become a sleep expert, but make the changes, such as:
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