During the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the emphasis on how the highly infectious and potentially deadly virus damages your health has been focused on the physical aspects. However, according to researchers, there is another way coronavirus can be devastating to your health for many years to come—even if you are never infected with it.
A new study led by the Yale School of Public Health published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that the life-altering effects of the coronavirus pandemic are likely to result in long-lasting physical and mental health consequences for many people—particularly those from vulnerable populations.
Who Will Be the Most Affected
A research team, led by Assistant Professor Sarah Lowe and colleagues, studied how Hurricane Katrina impacted a group of low-income women from New Orleans. As a result of the experience, the women reported a range of trauma—similar to those occurring now during the pandemic—including bereavement, lack of access to medical care and scarcity of medications.
“Although the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in its scale and scope, it shares several overlapping features with other disasters that we have seen in the past few decades,” Lowe explains to Eat This, Not That! Health. “Our study aimed to provide insight into the potential long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic by looking at how a range of experiences during Hurricane Katrina predicted mental and physical health outcomes 1, 4, and 12 years after that disaster.”
Researchers found that “bereavement, fear for one’s safety and the safety of loved ones, and disrupted access to medications and medical care” were among the most consistent predictors of short- and long-term health outcomes—even more so than home and other property damage, and controlling for preexisting health conditions and sociodemographic indicators.
“This suggests that we can expect the pandemic to have enduring effects on mental health, especially amongst those who have lost a loved one, have experienced difficulties accessing medications and medical care, and are experiencing high levels of anxiety and fear,” she continues.
The First Steps Toward a Cure
In addition to preventing the spread of the virus, there are a variety of things that can be done to help potential mental health implications, urges Lowe.
For one, “ramping up of means to reduce barriers to medical care and medication access—including telemedicine and medication delivery,” she explains. “These services should be available at low-cost and/or covered by insurance when possible.”
According to Ethan J Raker, PhD, Candidate in Sociology, part of Lowe’s research team, this is absolutely crucial. “This must be a consideration as hospitals begin reopening and begin the resumption of elective care,” he says. “It is critical to make them safe for care and develop effective messaging from public health officials that if there is an emergency, Americans should not fear going to the hospital for care.”
He points out that just a few months ago, as reported by Yale and others, there were sharp declines in the number of people coming in for heart attacks and strokes. “Our research speaks to the importance of ensuring that people do not fear getting care for these acute problems and emergencies.”
How to Help Yourself and Others
More emphasis needs to be put on the management of subclinical fears and anxiety. “The first step here is to acknowledge what we are feeling, rather than trying to deny or distract oneself from these emotions,” she says. “Once we recognize and accept what we are feeling, then we can start to regulate these emotions.” The next step is sorting through anxiety triggers that we can control versus those we cannot. “For example, we can do things to reduce our exposure to the virus by following the guidelines set forth by the CDC and other entities. We can also donate to those in need, engage in volunteerism, contact our local and national leaders, and vote in the upcoming election.”
Obviously, there are things we cannot control—including what other people do, how long the pandemic will last, whether or not the virus will mutate, etc. What we can do, however, is focus on managing these triggers, using other strategies, like mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal, and engagement in pleasurable activities. “At the societal level, public health messaging can assist people in engaging in these steps,” explains Lowe.
And finally, we should focus on offering mental health services for those who are suffering clinically significant fear, anxiety or other psychiatric symptoms. “Again, these should be low-cost and covered by insurance whenever possible, and flexible,” points out Lowe. “It has been great to see so many providers ramping up their web-based services. There are also a host of free services available, including hotlines.”
And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.