A Surge in PTSD May Be the 'New Normal'

Bret S. Stetka, MD


May 11, 2020

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The prolonged and unique stresses imparted by the COVID-19 pandemic has many predicting a significant rise in mental health issues in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

To understand how healthcare workers can best get ahead of this emerging crisis within a crisis, Medscape Psychiatry editorial director Bret Stetka, MD, spoke with Sheila Rauch, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. The director of Mental Health Research and Program Evaluation at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, Rauch has studied the effects of and best treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders over the past 20 years.

Are we going to see a PTSD or anxiety epidemic as a result of the pandemic?

First, I think it's really important that we prepare for the worst but hope for the best. But I would expect that given the high levels of stress, the impact on resources, and other factors, we are going to see a pretty significant mental health impact over time. This could be the new normal for a while. Some of that will be PTSD but there will also be other things. I would suspect that the resulting increase in rates of depression, traumatic grief, and loss is probably going to be a significant issue for years to come.

What will the anxiety we see as a result of COVID-19 look like compared with that seen in past disasters, like 9/11?

Most disasters in recent history, like 9/11, are single incidents. Something horrible happened, it impacted people at different levels, and we were able to start putting the pieces back together right away. The prolonged nature of this pandemic makes it even more variable, given that the impact is going to be extended over time.

We're also going to see a lot more people with compound impact—people who've lost their jobs, loved ones, maybe even their homes. All of those financial and resource losses put people in a higher risk category for negative mental health outcomes.

Is this analogous to the prolonged trauma that can occur with military service during war?

There is some similarity there. Combat is kind of an overarching context in which people experience trauma and, much like this pandemic, may or may not have traumatic exposures during it.

We're asking healthcare workers to actually be in a role similar to what we ask of our military: going into danger, sometimes even without proper protective equipment, in order to save the lives of others. That's also something we need to be factoring in as we plan to support those people and their families.

This is an ongoing incident, but is there a time window we need to be particularly worried about for seeing spikes in anxiety and PTSD?

I think we're going to see variability on that. PTSD is a disorder that's related to a specific incident or a couple of incidents that are similar. It's a memory that's haunting you.

For instance, typically if you have a combat veteran who has PTSD, they've been exposed to the overarching context of combat but then they have specific memories that are stuck. If they don't have PTSD about 3-6 months after those incidents happen, then we would expect that they will not develop it, or it's much less common that they would.

Depression has a very different course. It's more prolonged and tends to grow with time.

Are you already seeing increased symptoms in your patients?

We're seeing more anxiety, a lot of frustration, and a lot of very strong feelings about the leadership decisions that are being made. This is pretty similar to what we see in combat veterans. They'll often be unhappy with the leadership decisions that were made as they were being deployed.

We're also seeing lots more anger, sadness, and isolation now. Especially over the past couple of weeks, we've seen a rise in things like people reaching out for help in our intakes, because we're still open and doing phone assessments and telehealth with veterans and the veterans program.

In terms of interventions for this, what should psychiatrists, psychologists, and other clinicians be thinking about?

Right now, the best thing that we can do as mental health providers for people impacted by the trauma is provide crisis intervention for those saying they are a danger to themselves and others. That means providing coping strategies and support. It also means making sure people are taking breaks and taking care of themselves, taking that little bit of time off so that they can go back, fully recharge to their jobs, and really stay there.

As we move forward, it will be clearer whether people are going to naturally recover, which most people will. For those who are going to have ongoing problems with time, we need to be getting ready as a system and as a country for those long-term mental health issues that are going to be coming up. And when I say long-term, it means the next 1-3 months. We want to be providing preventive interventions, versions of prolonged exposure, and other things that have shown some help in preventing PTSD. Psychological first aid is helpful.

There's also an app called COVID Coach that the National Center for PTSD has created. That features a lot of positive coping resources together in one source.

Then when we get to the middle of that point and beyond it, we need to be ready to provide those evidence-based interventions for PTSD, depression, panic disorder, and other issues that are going to come out of this current situation.

But we were already short-staffed as far as mental health resources in general across the country, and especially in rural areas. So that means finding ways to efficiently use what we have through potentially briefer versions of interventions, through primary care, mental health, and other staff.

In what ways can primary care providers help?

There are versions of prolonged exposure therapy for primary care. That's one of my big areas of research—increasing access. That would be something that we need to be building, by training and embedding mental health providers in primary care settings so that they can help to accommodate the increased need for access that's going to be showing up for the next, I would suspect, several years with the pandemic.

Is there evidence that a prior episode of PTSD or traumatic experience like combat influences a subsequent reaction to a trauma like this?

It depends on how they manage. Research suggests that veterans or other people who have experienced trauma and naturally recovered, or who have gotten good treatment and remitted from that issue, are probably at no higher risk. But people who have subsyndromal PTSD or depression, or who are still experiencing symptoms due to a history of trauma exposure, are maybe at a higher risk of having problems over time.

Do you have any guidance for healthcare providers on how to approach the pandemic with their patients, and also on how they can look after their own mental health?

In talking to patients, make sure that they have what they need. Ask if they've thought through how they're going to cope if things get harder for them.

For people who have preexisting mental health issues, I'm talking with them about whether things have gotten worse. If they're at high risk for suicide, I'm checking in to make sure that they've got new plans and ways to connect with people to reduce isolation, keeping in mind the social distancing that we're asked to engage in so that they can do that safely.

It's important to check and see if they have had any losses, whether it's a financial loss or a personal loss of people that they care about. Also have them think through ways to stay entertained, which tends to help manage their own anxiety.

Every coping strategy we outline for patients also applies to mental health professionals. However, you would add to it the real need to take time to recharge, to take breaks, time off. It can feel overwhelming and like you need to just keep going. But the more that you get stuck in that mode of overdoing it, the less effective you're going to be in helping people and also the more likely that you'll be at risk of perhaps being one of the people that needs help.

It's also important to make sure you're staying connected with family and friends virtually, in whatever ways you can safely do that with social distancing.

So take a break to watch some Netflix now and then?


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