As vaccinations become widespread and the world enters the post-COVID-19 pandemic phase, Taiwanese are panic-stricken, as the nation has been hit by sudden and unprecedented community spread, and a spike in infections.
Taiwanese now have a much better understanding of the virus and also have the benefit of other nations’ experiences, but since the beginning of community transmission, Taiwan has been mired in endless arguing and disputes as politicians and pundits express their personal “insights,” while people with different opinions post fabricated news online. All this makes it clear how much pressure people are under.
Most Taiwanese are self-disciplined and willing to abide by pandemic control policies, and they are beginning to understand the importance of vaccination and the harm of inflammatory information. The public will likely manage to avoid the psychological toxicity that the pandemic could cause, establish new ideas about pandemic prevention and psychological resilience, and adapt to post-pandemic life.
The pressure of community infection frustrates people so much that the pandemic seems to have no end. Among the successes and failures, the world’s experiences of battling the pandemic provides valuable lessons to Taiwan. At this stage, Taiwanese should pay more attention to the impact of the pandemic on their mental health and daily routines, and find a way to prepare for post-pandemic life.
Due to insufficient supplies, vaccinations around the world are progressing so slowly that they have not kept up with the speed of transmission and mutation. The efficacy of the vaccines will be weakened over time and once the first-generation COVID-19 vaccines lose their efficacy, there will be a new wave. As a result, just as with the common influenza, people, and medical staff in particular, might need to be vaccinated every year against COVID-19.
In a discussion with my friend David Mischoulon, director of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, I learned that due to a severe COVID-19 outbreak, 90 percent of psychiatric consultations in Massachusetts last year moved online.
Psychiatric care is based mainly on face-to-face interviews and there is little physical contact or inspection. Coupled with the stigmatization that causes resistance to psychiatric treatment, remote diagnosis and treatment is more suitable for these sessions than for other medical specialties.
In response to the pandemic, psychiatrists in Massachusetts made their electronic medical record system compatible with videoconferencing software. Prescription drugs and all information are processed through this system.
Since consultations moved online, patient no-show rates and cancelations have dropped sharply, as driving, parking and other time-consuming inconveniences have been reduced.
During in-person sessions, the patient and psychiatrist are obligated to wear masks that cover half their faces. However, the videoconference enables a psychiatrist to see the patient’s expressions and emotions, allowing for a more accurate assessment. Psychiatrists plan to continue online assessments after the pandemic is brought under control.
Patients and their families who have recently visited or received treatment at a hospital understand the difficulty of seeking medical care. However, people have no idea how much pressure medical workers in hospitals are under. As community infection continues, anyone who goes to a hospital for a COVID-19 test can potentially be infected. Frontline medical personnel can become infected in the blink of an eye if they are not alert, exposing themselves, their colleagues and their families to danger.
Although they might be able to cope with these pressures temporarily, over time, as patients’ mild illnesses worsen, medical staff can become strained and exhausted, and it is therefore urgent to promote online diagnosis and treatment.
For example, online psychiatric care in Taiwan has greatly increased appointments for common psychosomatic disorders and reduced treatment delays, decreasing the need for hospitalization.
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise and the news coverage goes viral, most people are unaware of the “psychological toxicity” of pandemic news. Immunity is inextricably related to the health of the body and mind. Ignorance and the paralysis caused by feelings of helplessness should be feared just as much as the illness and death caused by the virus. Therefore, we must learn to reject negative thinking, first and foremost to reduce information overload and relieve the psychological burden.
In addition, although staying home and maintaining social distancing will help curb the virus’ spread, it could lead to mental health problems in the long run. Many studies have found that regular exercise and leisure activities, normal work and rest routines, adequate sleep, balanced nutrition, good interpersonal relations and social activities boost the body’s immune response.
When people’s daily lives are restricted, letting go of stressful thoughts, trying to change their mindset and appreciating the slower pace of life are ways to take advantage of the situation, and cultivate healthy minds and lifestyles.
Positive thinking is not innate, but requires deliberate practice. Do not spend the entire day focusing only on negative things. Instead, remind yourself to pay attention to positive information, as though shining a spotlight on it, so that the pressure and threat can be turned into a challenge that drives us to progress.
People wear masks to block out the virus; but do not let masks remove the friendship and trust between people. When the pandemic is over, people will have better hygiene habits and healthier lifestyles.
Su Kuan-pin is a professor of psychiatry at China Medical University’s College of Medicine and deputy director of Tainan Municipal An-nan Hospital.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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