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No one has felt the stress from the coronavirus pandemic more than the nation’s health care workers and first responders who are trying to save lives.
With more than half a million cases and 42,000 deaths, the coronavirus will continue taking its toll on those serving on the front line and mental health experts worry about the long-term impact.
“Fear and anxiety are as contagious as the virus,” New York-based psychiatrist and Yale faculty member Dr. Anna Yusim told Fox News. “With every patient, you have to get them through this trauma and then we have to find a silver lining.
A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) health tracking poll taken at the end of March found that 45 percent of respondents feel "that worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a negative effect on their mental health" and 19 percent said it has “a major impact.”
“We as a nation, are in a situation unlike anything that we've ever faced before,” Yusim said. “Death has become this ever-present reality and there is so much uncertainty that everybody is feeling.”
Yusim has been in private practice for a decade and has treated some 1,200 patients throughout her career. In 2017 she authored the book “Fulfilled: How Science of Spirituality Can Help You Lead a Happier, More Meaningful Life.” At Yale University, she is in the process of starting a spirituality mental health center within the psychiatry department.
She is in a unique position to help patients worried about the coronavirus because she contracted the virus, along with her husband.
The couple attended a Purim party on March 9 and started getting symptoms a day or two later. They also learned others who were at the party came down with it too. Her case was mild, but her husband was hospitalized for several days. Both have recovered.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, her practice has been busier than ever. She’s currently treating around 150 patients, including more than a dozen frontline healthcare workers and first responders.
“A lot of new patients have been reaching out. And I'm trying to accommodate as many people as I can because there is just such a need for that. People need help.”
“When I entered nursing, I never signed up for a suicide mission,” one of Yusim's patients, a New York City ICU nurse who declined to provide their name, said. “We don’t have proper PPE [personal protective equipment] and have had to re-wear single-use PPE several days in a row."
"So we are all really scared of contracting the virus ourselves, especially because now we see that younger, healthy people can end up on a ventilator and die as well. And we don’t feel like we’re being protected by the hospital or by our government,” she added. “It’s a relief to have a mental health provider outside of my hospital system who is unbiased in that way, and with whom I have a long-term relationship.”
A recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine on "Mental Health and the COVID -19 Pandemic" found that “after disasters, most people are resilient and do not succumb to psychopathology. Indeed, some people find new strengths.”
Some of Yusim’s patients have echoed the report’s findings.
“I do have patients who are also thriving right now,” Yusim said, adding, “There's always a silver lining. And even in a case like this, the human spirit is very strong and powerful. People are finding new ways to cope. They're finding ways to center themselves, finding ways to go within and find that still quiet place. And finding capacities and strengths within themselves that they didn't even know they had.”
Several of Yusim’s patients working on the front line considered “dropping out” and leaving their jobs.
"Nobody ended up leaving their jobs," she said. "They chose to live with some of the fear, but also with the knowledge that they're caring, they love their jobs, they love taking care of patients, and they're really, really good at it.”
Instead of seeing patients in her Upper East Side office, Yusim now holds sessions from her home on the telephone or by using Doxy.me, a telemedicine platform that complies with HIPPA federal privacy regulations.
“What I’ve started doing, especially for my frontline workers, is in addition to their once-a-week session, I offer them 15-minute sessions or whatever they need throughout the week because it's so overwhelming,” she said.
An FDNY paramedic who is another patient of Yusim’s explained the most challenging part of their job was going on call after call and not being able to save people’s lives. They, like the rest of the patients interviewed for this story, chose not to be named to protect their privacy.
“When somebody goes into cardiac arrest, you can intubate, breathe for them, do chest compressions, start IVs, monitor oxygen and try to restart their heart," they said. "But the people dying of this virus, they were in asystole [flat-lining] when we got to them and they died immediately."
"On top of that, the shock was how fast this was happening because most of the people had called 911 on their own, and by the time we got there, they were dead or about to die," they contimied. "We had never seen anything like this before, in terms of magnitude and severity.”
The first responder has been seeing Yusim for 12 years.
“When I talk to my family, I can’t really tell them anything because what I see day to day freaks them out," they said. "This is my time every week to talk about what I’m going through and really get things off my chest. It’s the only place I can really talk and reflect about how I’m feeling without having to take care of the other person. I always feel better after therapy.”
One of the greatest mental challenges for people living through a pandemic is the fear of the unknown and Yusim has found incorporating spirituality into her practice helpful.
“For a lot of people, coping involves faith and spirituality and reaching out to something greater than themselves as a way of finding solace in the unknown,” Yusim said. “I have plenty of patients that aren’t interested and just want psychology and the medical part. And that's completely fine."
"You meet the patient where they're at, but if they are open, I feel that having spirituality enables people to heal even faster and more thoroughly than just a psychological treatment or a medical treatment alone.”
Project Parachute provides free mental healthcare to frontline workers around across the U.S. To connect go to https://www.eleos.health/parachute
A mental health hotline is available to New Yorkers who need it. New Yorkers can call the state's hotline at 1-844-863-9314 to get free emotional support, consultations, and referrals to a provider.