First- Episode Psychosis in the Time of COVID-19

Patients May Need More Than Weekly Teletherapy

Angela A. Coombs, MD; Divya K. Chhabra, MD


June 12, 2020

Editorial Collaboration

Medscape &

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In response to COVID-19, we have seen a rapid transformation to virtually delivered mental health care, essential for the prevention and treatment of various mental health conditions during an isolating and stress-inducing pandemic. Yet, teletherapy and virtual medication management alone may not adequately address the needs of some of the populations we serve.

Take Jackson, whose name and details have been changed for privacy. A year ago, Jackson, in his last year of high school, began hearing voices that others could not hear. After becoming increasingly withdrawn, his father sought out treatment for him and learned that Jackson was experiencing his first episode of psychosis.

Psychosis involves disruptions in the way one processes thoughts and feelings or behaves, and includes delusions —or unusual beliefs —and hallucinations, meaning seeing and hearing things that others cannot. "First-episode psychosis" (FEP) simply refers to the first time an individual experiences this. It typically occurs between one's teenage years and their 20s. Whereas some individuals recover from their first episode and may not experience another, others go on to experience recurrence, and sometimes a waxing and waning illness course.

Jackson enrolled in a comprehensive mental health program that not only includes a psychiatrist, but also therapists who provide case management services, as well as a peer specialist; this is someone with lived experience navigating mental illness. The program also includes an employment and education specialist, and family and group therapy sessions. His team helped him identify and work toward his personal recovery goals: graduating from high school, obtaining a job, and maintaining a strong relationship with his father.

One hundred thousand adolescents and young adults like Jackson experience FEP each year, and now, in the wake of COVID-19, they probably have more limited access to the kind of support that can be vital to recovery.

Recovery-oriented care is about supporting an individual in obtaining a sense of satisfaction, meaning, and purpose in life.

Studies have shown that untreated psychosis can detrimentally affect quality of life in several ways, including by negatively affecting interpersonal relationships, interfering with obtaining or maintaining employment, and increasing the risk for problematic substance use. The psychosocial effects of COVID-19 could compound problems that individuals navigating psychosis already face, such as stigmatization, social isolation, and unemployment. On top of this, individuals who experience additional marginalization and downstream effects of systematic discriminatory practices by virtue of their race or ethnicity, immigration status, or language bear the brunt of some of this pandemic's worst health inequities.

Early and efficacious treatment is critically important for individuals experiencing psychosis. Evidence shows that engagement in coordinated specialty care (CSC) specifically can improve outcomes, including the likelihood of being engaged in school or work and lower rates of hospitalization. CSC is a team-based approach that utilizes the unique skills of every team member to support an individual in reaching their recovery goals, whether it's starting or finishing college or building a new relationship.

Unlike traditional treatment goals, which often focus on "symptom reduction," recovery-oriented care is about supporting an individual in obtaining a sense of satisfaction, meaning, and purpose in life. CSC involves not only individual sessions with one's psychiatrist or therapist, but collaboration with a patient's peers, groups, family, and work. It also supports navigating such experiences as a job interview or a date. These key, multifaceted components must be made accessible and adapted during these times.

For individuals like Jackson, it is crucial to be able to continue accessing quality CSC, even during our current pandemic. Lisa Dixon, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, leads ONTrackNY, a statewide FEP program. She states that "effective, recovery-oriented treatment can make such a huge difference in the lives of these young people who are at a potential inflection point in their lives. Creative, collaborative clinicians can maintain connection and support."

So how can we adapt CSC during this time? In addition to virtualized medication management and individual therapy, other components of CSC can be creatively adapted for online platforms. Group sessions can be completed virtually, from family to peer-led. Though the unemployment rate continues to rise, we can still help participants with a desire to work find employers that are offering remote work or navigate the risks of potential COVID-19 work exposures if remote options aren't available. We can also support their developing skills to be used once other employers that pose less risk reopen.

For those in school, virtual education support can provide study skills, ways to cope with transition to an online classroom, or help with obtaining tutoring. Nutritionists can work remotely to provide support and creatively use online platforms for real-time feedback in a participant's kitchen. Virtual case management is even more essential in the wake of COVID-19 , from assistance with applying for unemployment insurance and financial aid to obtaining health insurance or determining eligibility.

For those without access to virtual platforms, individual and group telephone sessions and text check-ins can provide meaningful opportunities for continued engagement. For those who are unstably housed or have limited privacy in housing, teams must generate ideas of where to have remote sessions, such as a nearby park.

In a world now dominated by virtual care, it is critically important that individuals needing to see a clinician in person still be able to so. Whether it is due to an acute crisis or to administer a long-acting injection medication, it is our responsibility to thoughtfully and judiciously remain available to patients, using appropriate personal protective equipment and precautions.

Jackson is one of many young people in recovery from psychosis. He is not defined by or limited by his experiences, but rather is navigating the possibilities that lie ahead of him, defining for himself who he wants to be in this world as it evolves. In the midst of COVID-19, as we seek to innovate—from how we exercise to how we throw birthday parties—let's also be innovative in how we provide care and support for individuals experiencing psychosis.

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