Thanks to mounting studies and research, doctors’ understanding of how to treat severe cases of incoming coronavirus patients is getting better with each passing day. Unfortunately, it’s also becoming clear that the disease is taking a greater toll on the body than we originally thought in the form of surprisingly horrific side effects and complications. Now, medical experts are raising concern over COVID-19 survivors developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that could affect them for years—and that the medical community should be prepared to deal with the care demands it will create.
Administrators from Britain’s National Health Service have begun issuing calls for all physicians to automatically screen COVID-19 patients for PTSD before being discharged from the hospital. Effects of the disease, which can include intense nightmares and vivid flashbacks, can potentially last for life if they are not properly addressed and treated.
Experts point out that intensive care unit experiences, which are routinely considered to be deeply traumatic, are uniquely worse for survivors of coronavirus. “For many people hospitalized with COVID-19 it’s been a potentially traumatic experience,” Michael Bloomfield, MD, an NHS psychiatrist and researcher at University College London told the Guardian. “Being in intensive care is frightening. There was a particular risk to their own life, because they were very ill. The doctors and nurses treating people in hospital all had to wear protective equipment. People weren’t able to see their relatives. And patients had tubes in them and, if they were intubated, they were in an altered state of consciousness.”
The highly contagious nature and aggressively dangerous symptoms of the virus have made the experience of many patients are a particularly difficult one to process even after they’ve been discharged. “It was like being in hell,” one patient told the BBC. “I saw people dying, people with the life being sucked from them. The staff all have masks on and all you saw was eyes—it was so lonely and frightening.”
The calls for post-hospitalized treatment of PTSD in coronavirus survivors was also echoed in a recently published report in the medical journal Global Health Research and Policy. The study looked at the case rates of PTSD in survivors of previous disease outbreaks, including the 2003 SARS outbreak, H1N1 flu epidemic of 2009, and the Ebola outbreak of 2015, finding that “epidemiological studies have demonstrated a rather high prevalence of mental health problems among survivors, victim families, medical professionals, and the general public after an epidemic of infectious disease.” The authors conclude the study by saying “we believe it urgent to provide mental health service targeted at prevention of PTSD to survivors and other people exposed to COVID-19.”
As for now, experts are continuing to look ahead and raise awareness about the mental health implications of the pandemic. “We need to make sure we support these patients,” Bloomfield told the BBC. “Services in place are very variable. Failure to do more could have long-term consequences.”
Video: Healthwatch: Neurological, Psychological Complications Linked To COVID-19 (CBS Baltimore)