Mental Health of Caregivers of COVID-19 positive patients

Dr. Sanchari Mukhopadhyay

We’re facing a new reality now. It’s the reality of a global crisis which has affected and is affecting thousands of lives. In this unforeseen and unexpected situation, stress and anxiety of the people are absolutely understandable. Medical experts all over the globe are trying to formulate a comprehensive management for this new strain of virus. The people in general are practising precautionary measures suggested by health organizations and trying to keep themselves away from exposure to infection. What about those who are already exposed? For example, those who are not only exposed but also caring for the infected ones?!

Yes, it’s the caregivers of persons with COVID-19 infection that I’m talking about. We shall be discussing about them as they are in a unique turmoil.

Difficulties faced by the caregivers:

  1. Exposure to infection day in and day out
  2. Stress regarding the fact that a close one is affected or can be affected
  3. Anxiety, apprehension : All the stress may give birth to anxiety. Anxiety can be mild, corresponding to the stressful times or can be severe, staying with you all the time. Will your sick family member ever be cured? Will the rest of the family be fine? Will you be able to manage things adequately? What will happen if he/she doesn’t get cured? What if you contract the illness and thus leaving no one to care for him/her? What if there’s no end to this cycle of infection?
  4. Hopelessness, helplessness
  5. Sleep deprivation
  6. Reduced social interactions
  7. Fear of stigma

We have kept the issues mostly pertaining to mental health except for exposure to infection which in itself is a problem as well as a cause of myriads of others.

We have discussed the stress factor (if not experienced). Now there comes the concept of coping. It is said that our response to stress depends more on our perception of stress and not so much on the stress itself. Though we can’t change the scenario causing stress, we can very well attempt to appraise it in a different way, a healthier way.

Coping can be problem-focused where we employ methods of coping to solve the problem at hand. Or it can be emotion-focused where we cope to appraise the problem in a way so as to reduce our emotional reaction to it. With this coronavirus pandemic, problem-focused coping is not much of our cup of tea except having proper information and following authorized protocols for prevention/care. But we can try redirecting our emotions by distractions, positive reappraisal etc.

We’re done with the theory now. Let’s talk about real life. How do the caregivers apply these theories in real life?

  1. First of all, have adequate information on the current situation, the medical advancements, the treatment facilities – all from verified sources like WHO, CDC or anything specific for your country.
  2. While at home isolation with the person, you must follow the instructions given by the health authorities. These are available on their websites as well. Have a look!
    • Washing hands for 20 seconds before and after every handling of the patient or his/her belongings.
    • Sanitize or clean the frequently used surfaces frequently.
    • Use mask while going in the proximity of the patient.
    • Sneeze or cough inside mask or in a disposable tissue paper
    • Keep yourself at home to avoid spreading infection.
  3. What about your mental health? You’re vulnerable. And that is why you should take sufficient care of yourself while caring for others.
    • Fix up a schedule for everything : Caregiving as well as relaxation. Eg, 7-9: preparing food, 9-10: listening to music, 10-11: washing and cleaning, 11-12: Read a light book/ talk to a relative.
    • Take out time for at least three things: exercise, your hobby and virtual contact with relatives and friends. Won’t take more than three hours in a day. I guess that much can be spared.
    • Try deep breathing whenever you get tired or jittery.
    • If you like to read, read a light book unless you’re into research books or non-fictions. If your pleasure lies there, go ahead.
    • There are web series which take only 30-40 minutes or an hour max for one episode. When there’s a time constraint, try those. If you have a bit more time to spare, watch a full movie.
    • Since you’re anyway having to cook, try new recipes rather than cooking the same old things everyday.
    • Always remember -You are not alone. Millions of people are in isolation/ quarantine. Thousands are caregivers like you. So, we’re just keeping distances physically and not mentally. Keep in regular touch with your friends and relatives, through calls/ video calls/ chat. But keep your points very clear. You don’t need contempt or unsolicited advice. Smile and avoid all discussions heading to that. Your conversations should encompass happy and good and encouraging things. Try talking about other things than the pandemic. If at all, talk about it for a while and then force yourself to change the topic whether or not you want.
    • One more window to vent out will be a diary or a journal.
    • Since you’re already burdened with an important job of caregiving, you may not try learning new things. It’s better to brush up old things rather. But if you really feel happy when you do new things, go ahead with anything new.
    • Practise regularisation of daily schedule. Eat, sleep, bathe at a fixed time everyday.
    • If you have any symptom suggestive of coronavirus infection, seek medical help. You’ll know better than anyone else the need of early detection and treatment.

The author of this article, Dr. Sanchari Mukhopadhyay is an MBBS, MD (Psychiatry & Drug de-addiction).

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