Fears, grief of COVID-19 crisis may affect mental health; counseling can help

Bob, a registered nurse, works in an intensive care unit hit with an influx of COVID-19 patients. He has witnessed the effects of the virus on his patients, the toll the restrictive visitor policies have taken on their families and the death of several patients. Some patients have survived, but Bob has witnessed the pain and emotional trauma they have endured.

The long hours and tremendous stress of working during the pandemic has deeply affected Bob. He has been short-tempered and has experienced bouts of insomnia, nightmares, feelings of hypervigilance and panic attacks. Friends and family have noticed that he appears emotionally detached.

What is PTSD?

This scenario represents someone who may be experiencing PTSD and who needs to seek professional help, said Steve Trader, a licensed professional counselor for Pathways Professional Counseling.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric disorder occurring when a person experiences or witnesses an event of a traumatic nature and afterward begins to exhibit symptoms such as hypervigilance, irritability, emotional numbness and panic attacks.

Traumatic events leading to PTSD may include a serious accident, a terrorist act, war or combat, personal assault or a natural disaster.

And as health care professionals experience the consistent physical and emotional strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them struggle to remain mentally healthy while working with their patients.

The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to affect individuals in multi-faceted ways that can include fear of death or death of a loved one, loss of financial stability due to the societal changes that have taken place and forced isolation through stay-at-home orders, Trader said.

Health care workers are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 and may develop PTSD symptoms from the perceived threat of the virus to themselves or their families. The perceived threat can create a sense of hypervigilance within the individual, leading to a variety of psychological issues.

High anxiety

LaShay, a hospital worker, said she is terrified to go to work, fearing she will contract the virus and spread it to her son, who suffers from uncontrolled asthma.

“When I get [to the hospital] I cry before I go in every day,” LaShay said. “You don’t know whether you’re going to come out with [COVID-19]. My anxiety is high and I’m scared. If I have to go in the room where [patients] have symptoms, I don’t know what I’ll do. I need the money, but I just can’t go [to work].”

LaShay said she prays for strength, but the fear of exposure has led her to consider employment outside the health care profession.

The United Nations policy brief, “COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health,” called for world leaders to recognize the COVID-19 stressors confronting frontline health care workers and first responders and outlined the need to ensure the mental health of workers to sustain preparedness, response and recovery throughout the pandemic.

“We could assert that countries all over the world are waging war against this invisible enemy,” Trader said. “Some have been waging this war early on. Consequently, the countries in the Eastern Hemisphere have been the first to see the effects on their population. We may see front-line personnel (first responders) prone to a quickened level of emotional reactivity, sleep issues, feelings of emotional numbness, concentration issues and hypervigilance.”

While PTSD can take six months to diagnose, Trader stressed that now is the time to increase awareness of what PTSD is, how to recognize the symptoms, who is most susceptible and where to go for help.

If an individual doesn’t recognize his or her need for support, it’s important for loved ones to encourage that person to seek help, Trader said.

Family and friends should listen, love and pray while letting the individual know hope exists.

Patterns of thinking

A person with PTSD is often hesitant to seek treatment due to feelings of embarrassment, shame or fear of being perceived as “crazy,” Trader said.

The individual should be reminded these feelings are normal and encouraged to seek help from a trained and licensed professional counselor who can help the person overcome these patterns of thinking.

Several resources from Woman’s Missionary Union are available to help as well.

Alabama WMU offers a free resource to help churches in the work of ministering to those with PTSD. “Trading Up: Bible stories that move us from pain to peace” by Murselle McMillan and Janet Erwin is a National WMU publication created as part of Project HELP: PTSD. The study features 11 Bible stories and one personal story with strategic questions that offer hope and healing. The study reminds groups that the work of the church is to befriend hurting people and their families and offer prayer and support.

Find the “Trading Up” resource at alabamawmu.org/resources.

Symptoms universally common to people experiencing PTSD

  • Flashbacks
  • Irritability
  • Panic attacks when triggered
  • Emotional numbness
  • Detachment from other people
  • Avoidance
  • Hopelessness about the future