China's Coronavirus Response Included Mental Health Assistance

By Marilynn Larkin

March 26, 2020

(Reuters) - China's proactive approach to providing online mental health services during the coronavirus outbreak was an important part of its overall emergency response, doctors there say.

Online mental health services developed in China for the COVID-19 epidemic have helped manage anxiety, depression and stress brought about by the outbreak that originated in Wuhan, Dr. Bin Zhang of Southern Medical University in Guangzhou and colleagues wrote in The Lancet Psychiatry.

These online services included mental health surveys; new psychological assistance hotlines; public education via programs like WeChat, Weibo and TikTok; rapid publication of books on COVID-19 prevention and control and psychological self-help; and implementation of artificial intelligence programs to address psychological crises.

Dr. Robert Shulman, Acting Chair of the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told Reuters by email the "population-health model approach" taken by China is "a major difference from what the response in the U.S. has been."

In the United States, he added, "The use of telehealth in mental health has been limited by regulations, just newly waived by federal regulators. Now, as most clinics have moved to remote visits, telehealth is being ramped up, but it will not be a replacement for the usual 1:1 treatment model."

Also, he noted, because Chinese officials "pushed surveys out to the general public quickly," they were able "to build a database while educating end users about the risks of infection and offering basic tips on avoiding becoming ill or infecting others."

Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, told Reuters by email, "Studies suggest that clinical levels of anxiety increased in China after the COVID-19 outbreak and we can expect clinical levels of anxiety to rise in the U.S."

Like Dr. Shulman, he noted, "State and federal regulations around telehealth have been relaxed to allow psychologists and psychiatrists to provide telehealth across state lines. . . . The private sector also offers smartphone apps for mental health, such as Headspace and Calm, which can be accessed for a fee," he added. "It is likely that smartphone mental health apps will customize their services to treat COVID-19 anxiety, (and) new apps designed to address mental health in the context of COVID-19 pandemic could be developed."

Through the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. government makes free mental health smartphone apps available to everyone; these can be accessed at https://www.pdhealth.mil/resources/mobile-applications.

More information on managing stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic is available from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (https://bit.ly/2QJzmwE) and from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (https://bit.ly/2wqtrpn).

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/3avwDhW Lancet Psychiatry, online February 18, 2020.

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