Pandemic policy might not be conducive to healthy mental and emotional states, especially for those isolated in a COVID-19 ward. Before masks, social distancing, and quarantine, our society was already moving toward a screen-centric life, and away from many traditional communal routines. Noting the cell phone addiction in modern culture, Jane E Brody wrote a pre-pandemic article for the New York Times titled, “Social Interaction is Critical for Mental and Physical Health”.
Ms. Brody likely had no idea how relevant this information would become in 2020, as COVID patients are condemned to lonely isolated experiences, sometimes left to die without the ability to say goodbye to loved ones. While there is no broad sweeping policy keeping family and friends from saying goodbye to their COVID infected beloveds, most hospitals across the globe have instituted a no-visitor policy during COVID.
No Visitor Policies Create Increased Anxiety for Patients and Family
These policies extend beyond the COVID ward, and apply to the entire hospital, as I learned first hand when my mother was admitted into the emergency room at MD Anderson last month during her cancer treatment. I was left to cry in the lobby, begging to see my mother, and met with a firm and sympathetic “no”. They did allow me to drop off flowers and photos to be hand delivered to her, but I was left feeling empty, defeated, and so very angry. I am one of the lucky ones, my mother is alive and here with us, and I have had the opportunity to hug her since she was discharged.
In other instances, families are not so lucky. Dr. Sumedha Tiwari, Sr. Registrar Department of Psychiatry Rajawadi hospital is working as a psychiatrist in a COVID ward in Mumbai, India. She reports the extreme distress and anxiety experienced by individuals who are diagnosed with COVID and forced to stay isolated away from their family and friends. In one instant a couple was brought in together, and the husband did not survive. Because the wife was infected, she was unable to grieve with the support of her family, and was left to mourn in isolation.
Dr. Tiwari also describes the trauma that many patients experience in the COVID ward when they witness other patients die in front of them. Not only are patients isolated, but they are experiencing added trauma in the hospital room, which can compound the level of anxiety they feel. Another Doctor in Mumbai reports watching patients beg to be released, pleading with doctors to not be “trapped” in the COVID isolation ward. She claims “one patient asked me, ‘why are we being shunned from society and being put literally behind bars’?”.
Unintended Consequence of Isolation Induced Anxiety
Could we possibly be creating more death, disease and illness through these no visitor policies? If historical medical research can give us any indication, the answer might be “yes”. A 1965 study conducted in Alameda County, California, concluded that people are three times more likely to die when they lack strong social ties. One of the most interesting conclusions of this study is that people with unhealthy lifestyles who had strong social connections actually lived longer than people with healthy lifestyles who lacked social connection. In other words, our people help us to live longer.
Another study conducted by Harvard Medical School concluded that men who have lower stress and stronger social connections were more likely to recover from a heart attack than those with high stress and isolation.
“With other important prognostic factors controlled for, the patients classified as being socially isolated and having a high degree of life stress had more than four times the risk of death of the men with low levels of both stress and isolation.”
It is worth noting that Harvard Medical School has determined that…. “the life-enhancing effects of social support extend to giver as well as to receiver.” The benefits of social interaction to not only help the patient, but the family and friends who show up to support and comfort them. This means the pain and anxiety felt by the patients is going to impact their friends and family as well. I learned this the excruciatingly hard way from my first hand of experience with these policies as a visitor (mentioned above).
Why Mental Health is Important During a Pandemic
In general, our mental health has a great impact on our physical health and longevity. Harvard Women’s Health Watch reports that “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.” Right now our society has become very focused on the physical symptoms of the COVID 19 pandemic. We have been focused on mitigating the spread of the disease through hand washing, mask wearing, and social isolation, while an unseen mental health crisis grows amongst us.
If the stress and anxiety factor is not taken into consideration, the impact on our survival through this pandemic may be huge. It is time for medical practitioners and institutions to take mental health into consideration, especially for patients and their loved ones during this pandemic. For all we know, more human interaction (with COVID safety protocols in place) is the antidote we need to reach greater recovery rates.