As our communities brace for the COVID-19 pandemic, people might think that psychiatrists are idle while our health care providers are focused on caring for people with acute infectious and respiratory conditions. Not so. Iowa’s mental health care system, which provides necessary treatment and support for the more than 600,000 Iowans who live with behavioral health conditions, was stretched thin before Coronavirus arrived. Shortly after the public health emergency was declared, state and federal regulations were temporarily changed so mental health services can be provided by phone or video. This change was crucial for providers to continue caring for a vulnerable population, while also making it easier for patients to stay home and practice social distancing. In the coming months, our mental health care system will be called upon to also meet the needs of Iowans who are grappling with the consequences of economic downturn, anxiety about the future, and the trauma associated with surviving a pandemic.
While some are experiencing worse mental health symptoms, others are having mental health symptoms for the first time. Healthcare providers are facing unprecedented stress due to abrupt changes in duties and workload, fear of contracting Coronavirus, and fear of bringing this infection home to our loved ones. Working in health care is a calling for many of us. We feel a duty to put aside our fears to focus on taking care of our patients, but that doesn’t mitigate the stress. Our hospital has established a hotline so our health care providers can reach out and talk with a mental health professional 24/7.
When things are overwhelming, it is often helpful to identify a few steps you can take to move forward. A little progress and the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a task help us connect with the things in our lives that we can control. Now is the time to support health care workers and everyone else who is continuing to work so we can continue to buy groceries, use water and electricity without interruption, receive mail and packages, and access other critical services. How can you support our critical workers? Two things: stay home and stay healthy.
Staying home helps you avoid contracting COVID-19, and helps keep you from giving it to someone else. Estimates are that 25-50% of people who have Coronavirus do not have any symptoms. People can be contagious before they have symptoms. We can spread Coronavirus even if we don’t feel sick or know that we have it. Staying home, practicing social distancing when we must go out for essentials, and wearing a face mask are all things we can do to help reduce the number of people who get COVID-19.
It is important to take care of yourself during this very stressful time. Finding alternative ways to socialize, like by phone or video, can help us maintain the relationships that sustain us. As always, healthy sleep, eating, exercise, and relaxation habits help us manage stress better. The changes we are experiencing are unprecedented in our lifetime, and it is understandable to feel upset or scared. Ask for help. Reduce your risk of getting sick with COVID-19 by staying home, washing hands often, and practicing social distancing. Getting through the pandemic will require sacrifice, patience, and endurance. The sooner we take the recommended steps to reduce the spread of disease, the less stress there will be on our health care system, our health care providers, and those who are unable to work from home. Do Your Part. Stay Healthy. Stay Home. Doctor’s Orders.
Alison Lynch is a psychiatrist and family physician practicing at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, where she is the director of the addiction medicine program. She is a board member of the Iowa Medical Society.