Mental health in the time of coronavirus

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While quarantine is by far the best tool for quickly limiting the spread of an infectious disease, it comes at a high price. 

Sandro Galea, a physician, epidemiologist, author, and Robert A. Knox Professor at Boston University School of Public Health, says that the scars of quarantine will last long after the virus is contained.

While COVID-19 is the first epidemic of the social media age, there’s nothing high tech about the stress of isolation. Citing a study of the aftermath of SARS control in Toronto, Galea says these findings are a harbinger of things to come. “We found among quarantined persons a high prevalence of psychological distress, including symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” he writes in Psychology Today. This will be the next task facing the medical and public health communities. “A key takeaway: Even if we can halt the physical spread of a disease through the expeditious use of quarantine and social distancing, we will still have to contend with its mental health effects in the long-term.”

When thinking about already vulnerable communities, Galea’s work becomes even more compelling. 

In another study published this past January, he and his colleagues found significant upticks in depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms in communities who participated in protests, riots, and resistance efforts—the types of communities who are now disproportionately more likely to bear the long-term economic impact of quarantine and social distancing.

These are also typically the communities who were already chronically under-resourced and deeply stressed. And as research shows, the cognitive toll of being poor leads to a scarcity mindset and bad decision-making, which results in more stress and bad health.

It now feels like a triple-whammy of mental health problems coming down the pike. 

This is one reason why cash payments, like a universal basic income—or the temporary program inexplicably proposed by Senator Mitt Romney—have become popular ideas. While more research is needed, cash payments do appear to relieve psychological distress, particularly in the short term.

Even if the rationale is an economic one, anything to minimize stress would be a welcome fix.

“Every American adult should immediately receive $1,000 to help ensure families and workers can meet their short-term obligations and increase spending in the economy,” Romney said in a press release yesterday. “Congress took similar action during the 2001 and 2008 recessions. While expansions of paid leave, unemployment insurance, and SNAP benefits are crucial, the check will help fill the gaps for Americans that may not quickly navigate different government options.”

Now, it looks like the Trump administration is ready to move on the cash scheme, more here.

Needless to say, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who centered his campaign on a universal basic income, is “pumped” that the idea has gained traction.

“Putting money into people’s hands is the obvious thing to do in this situation,” he tweeted. “I hope Congress wakes up to this before it’s too late. Every day is enormous at this point.”

Ellen McGirt

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