All of our lives have been disrupted by COVID-19 and acknowledging this to patients can help them feel less isolated and vulnerable. Our patients with diagnosed psychiatric disorders will be more susceptible to crippling anxiety, exacerbations in panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms, and resurgence of suicidal ideation in the face of uncertainty and despair. They may also be more likely to experience the socioeconomic fallout of this pandemic. But it’s not just these individuals who will be hit with intense feelings as we wonder what the next day, month, or 6 months hold for us, our families, our friends, our country, and our world.
Recently, I had one of the more surreal experiences of my professional life. I work as a consultation-liaison psychiatrist on the medical wards, and I was consulted to treat a young woman from Central America with schizophrenia who made a serious suicide attempt in mid-February before COVID-19 was part of the lexicon.
After an overdose, she developed aspiration pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome and ended up in the ICU on a respirator for 3 weeks. Her doctors and family were certain she would die, but she miraculously survived. By the time she was extubated and less delirious from her medically induced coma, the hospital had restricted all visitors because of COVID-19.
Because I speak Spanish, we developed as decent a working relationship as we could, considering the patient’s delirium and blunted affect. On top of restarting her antipsychotics, I had to inform her that her family was no longer allowed to come visit her. Outside of this room, I vacillated on how to tell a woman with a history of paranoia that the hospital would not allow her family to visit because we were in the middle of a pandemic. A contagious virus had quickly spread around the world, cases were now spiking in the United States, much of the country was on lockdown, and the hospital was limiting visitors because asymptomatic individuals could bring the virus into the hospital or be infected by asymptomatic staff.
As the words came out of my mouth, she looked at me as I have looked at psychotic individuals as they spin me yarns of impossible explanations for their symptoms when I know they’re simply psychotic and living in an alternate reality. Imagine waking up from a coma and your doctor telling you: “The U.S. is on lockdown because a deadly virus is spreading throughout our country.” You’d think you’ve woken up in a zombie film. Yet, the patient simply nodded and asked: “Will I be able to use the phone to call my family?” I sighed with relief and helped her dial her brother’s number.
Haven’t we all listened to insane stories while keeping a straight face and then answered with a politely bland question? Just a few months ago, I treated a homeless woman with schizophrenia who calmly explained to me that her large malignant ovarian tumor (which I could see protruding under her gown) was the unborn heir of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. If she allowed the doctors to take it out (that is, treat her cancer) she’d be assassinated by the Russian intelligence agency. She refused to let the doctors sentence her to death. Ultimately, we allowed her to refuse treatment. Despite a month of treatment with antipsychotic medication, her psychotic beliefs did not change, and we could not imagine forcing her through surgery and chemotherapy. She died in hospice.
I’ve walked the valleys of bizarro land many times. Working through the dark reality of COVID-19 should be no match for us psychiatrists who have listened to dark stories and responded with words of comfort or empathic silence. As mental health clinicians, I believe we are well equipped to fight on the front lines of the pandemic of fear that has arrested our country. We can make ourselves available to our patients, friends, family, and institutions – medical or otherwise – that are grappling with how to cope with the psychological impact of COVID-19.
Dr. Posada is a consultation-liaison psychiatry fellow with the Inova Fairfax Hospital/George Washington University program in Falls Church, Va., and associate producer of the MDedge Psychcast. She changed key details about the patients discussed to protect their confidentiality. Dr. Posada has no conflicts of interest.