DOWNTOWN — Coronavirus has dominated the news for the last few weeks. In the United States, there are cases in almost every state, with a total of more than 1,250 and counting.
It is now in more than 100 countries, prompting the World Health Organization to classify the virus as a pandemic, which it defines as a “worldwide spread of a new disease.”
At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said coronavirus is 10 times as deadly as the flu.
Universities and employers are telling students and workers to stay home, Chicago’s three St. Patrick’s Day parades were cancelled and some sporting events are now scheduled to take place in empty arenas while others — like the NBA, has suspended its season.
All this attention and information, although accurate, is likely to trigger anxiety in some, prompting experts to warn about the impact of coronavirus on mental health, and give tips to stay calm — as well providing information about the stigma some close to the virus are saddled with and how to talk to children about the virus.
One Chicago mental health clinic said it’s preparing for an increase in patients battling coronavirus fears and offered tips.
Dr. Pavan Prassad, owner of founder of Clarity Clinic, a therapeutic and psychiatric care facility with four Chicagoland locations, said while his clinic has not seen an increase in patients yet because of the virus, he anticipates one soon.
“People already have anxiety and this will only trigger it more, especially with misinformation being spread. The uncertainty of the unknown is something that is hard for us to wrap our minds around. There’s no end to our imaginations and if we don’t have realistic feelings about where we are it’s very easy to let it get away from us,” Prassad said.
Dr. Casey Noreika, who works with Prassad at Clarity Clinic, agreed with him, saying people often think of worst-case scenarios.
“I think the coronavirus brings up several fears for people,” Noreika said. “Due to the attention on this topic, people have developed some fears and anxieties of being around crowds of people, using public transportation and being in contact with others who may appear to be ill. Some people may be staying home, cancelling plans, or social engagements due to the heightened fear.”
To manage fears, Noreika advises doing simple things like taking deep breaths and engaging in enjoyable activities —go for a walk outside, read a book, watch your favorite movie, cook a nice meal — to help keep negative thoughts at bay. He also urges those nervous about coronavirus to engage in positive self-talk, and said along with washing your hands and covering your mouth, people should keep hand sanitizer on them and stay home if one is feeling sick.
“This is where boundaries come into play. Many of us push ourselves too much, ignoring the impact overall stress can have on our mental and physical health. At the end of the day, there is only so much we can do, separate from putting ourselves in a big bubble. The coronavirus is a tricky one, again given all the attention it has received and the seriousness of it. We want to take this seriously, but we do not want to become crippled by anxiety, preventing us from living happy, active lives,” Noreika said.
Baruch Fischoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, also thinks limiting media exposure can be an important factor in keeping anxiety in-check..
“I recommend following a very few print sources (national, local), as well as the local health department, to learn about the disease,” Fischoff said. “That news changes very slowly. Looking once a day might be enough.”
Another aspect of coronavirus that can add to anxiety is the stigma that is often attached to those who are relatively close to it — such as someone who treats those afflicted or who have been around people with the virus, according to Alexandria Brewis, professor of anthropology and global health at Arizona State University.
“What we find, even when there’s no physical danger, deadly diseases and particularly diseases with no known cure, can trigger social stigma towards people who treat the disease or who are around people that are affected by the disease. It’s a phenomenon we call courtesy stigma, or stigma by association. If you’re someone that is treating people that have an infectious disease, especially one with no known cure and one in which there is a lot of fear, you can also become stigmatized just as the patients do,” Brewis said.
Asked about the recent slowdown in business in Chicago’s Chinatown and some racist attitudes towards Asians because the virus first emerged in Wuhan, China, Brewis said the stigma makes ones’ racism more intense.
“It adds an emotional intensity. People have these preconceived notions but when you add fear of disease to it, it takes it to another level. People have these gut reactions that are not coming from the rational part of their mind,” she said.
Brewis added that such attitudes against “people that are not like us — migrants, people from other countries” are common when a new disease or virus emerges and that often it shapes the way a government responds to a pandemic or pandemic threat. To fight it, it’s imperative for people to speak out.
“One of the most important things is to have people who are publicly trusted speak out against it. We also know activism within the stigmatized communities is important as well, people need to push back. And the media is an important part of this to get these voices heard,” Brewis said.
‘It’s Important Not To Panic’
Standing up and fighting ignorance with facts is essential, as is maintaining a healthy and rational perspective about the real dangers, rather than focusing on worst-case scenarios that often are informed by Hollywood movies, Brewis, Prassad and Noreika said.
A movie about a pandemic that slowly ends because of vigilance by the public would not sell as many tickets as end-of-the-world stories —but if these films are viewed as reality, it can cause irrational fears to increase.
Maintaining a healthy perspective is not only important for oneself, but it’s vital for children, as they often mirror the behavior of adults, according to Katherine Cowan, spokesperson for the National Association of School Psychologists, which recently put out guidance on how to talk to children about the virus.
“Kids take their cues from the adults around them in terms of how afraid to be of something. So, it’s imperative that adults and parents are reinforcing their kids sense of safety and that the steps that everyone is taking to reduce the spread of the virus are ways to take control of the situation,” Cowan said.
She added that how and what you tell children should depend on their age and emotional development.
“Obviously the level of that information needs to be age appropriate, developmentally appropriate. The 5-year-old is going to need a different level of information than the 17-year-old.”
Cowan also addressed one issue that’s gotten a lot of attention on social media — the desire for some to stock up on items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
“It’s not irrational to take this seriously but it’s important not to panic. Even going to the grocery store and buying more canned goods than you might need or more rolls of toilet paper than you might need, those are not necessarily wrong things to do if they make you feel like you’re more in control,” Cowan said. “Of course, you don’t want to do something that undermines other peoples ability to be prepared like buying all the hand sanitizer, but doing reasonable, rational things to be prepared, even if they aren’t the things you’d do in your normal schedule, is not a bad thing to do.”
While it’s unknown whether the coronavirus threat will end once the spring weather is here to stay much like the flu, or if the efforts of the United States will render it “a temporary moment in time,” as President Donald Trump told Americans on Wednesday night — one thing seems to be certain according to experts: Maintaining calm and being rational is the best approach for not only eliminating the threat of the virus, but maintaining mental health for yourself and the children you influence.
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