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Hosted by Editor in Chief Lorenzo Norris, MD, Psychcast features mental health care professionals discussing the issues that most affect psychiatry.

Mar 18, 2020

Col. (Ret.) Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD, MPH, conducts a Masterclass on what psychiatrists and other mental health clinicians can do to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

Dr. Ritchie is writing additional commentaries on this topic for MDedge Psychiatry.

And later, in the “Dr. RK” segment, Renee Kohanski, MD, says that, with simple tools or guidelines, humans have the ability to withstand adversity that is stronger than we will ever know.

Take-home points

  • Epidemics and pandemics are characterized by fear and anxiety.
  • Quarantine will be a challenge for patients with addictions and vulnerable populations such as individuals who are homeless.
  • Psychiatrists can aid with social distancing by providing patients refills for psychotropic medications without requiring an in-person visit and switching to telepsychiatry where possible. The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act waives Medicare telehealth reimbursement restrictions for mental health services during certain emergency periods.
  • Inpatient psychiatric units must take special precautions to prevent spread of COVID-19, such as improving procedures for sanitizing communal areas and items, limiting visitation, screening patients for symptoms, and arranging transfer when appropriate. COVID-19 infection can spread on units to patients and staff and may compromise clinicians’ ability to provide care safely.
  • Psychiatrists also play a role in helping address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) by talking to patients about the appropriate use of PPE and sanitizer.


  • Emotional response to pandemics: Epidemics and pandemics are characterized by fear and anxiety as people worry about their risk of exposure, infection, and spreading the pathogen. Clinics can alleviate the anxiety by transitioning to telehealth when possible, discouraging handshakes, keeping a distance from patients, and rearranging waiting rooms and other spaces to provide more room between chairs and tables. Psychiatrists can encourage patients and fellow clinicians to engage in activities that normally reduce anxiety, such as exercising, setting aside time for relaxation at home, and taking regularly prescribed or over-the-counter medications.
  • Quarantine considerations: Quarantine and isolation will be difficult for most people, and especially so for patients with psychiatric disorders, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists can prepare themselves and patients for quarantine by refilling medications for more than 30 days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends clinicians refill nonurgent medications without an in-person visit. Patients who are addicted to alcohol or other substances may be tempted to leave the house to acquire those substances. It may be a physician’s responsibility to either suggest to patients that they have enough of their substance at home or give them something to treat withdrawal or cravings.
  • Considerations for inpatient psychiatric units: Psychiatric units are built for socialization and communal treatment; thus, psychiatric units will have to change policies, including limiting visitors; decreasing occupancy on the units; and ensuring that communal items such as phones, chairs, and books are properly sanitized.
  • Long-term psychological impact of a pandemic: The negative economic impact of the pandemic, such as unemployment in the tourism and service industries, may have consequences including rising rates of depression and anxiety, suicides, and increases in domestic violence and substance abuse.  Psychiatrists can help address the shortage of PPE by talking to patients about the appropriate use of PPE and sanitizer. It is wise to have a stock of food, medications, and supplies for 14-21 days of quarantine, but in a public health emergency we can urge patients and ourselves to be mindful of the needs of others and avoid hoarding. We need to remind ourselves, our patients, and our colleagues to stay healthy by getting enough sleep, taking on the appropriate level of readiness, and remaining flexible as our daily lives are changed by the pandemic.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim guidelines for healthcare facilities: Preparing for community transmission of COVID-19 in the United States.

H.R. 6074: Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. Passed Congress 2020 Mar 6.

Brooks SK et al. The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: Rapid review of the evidence. Lancet. 2020 Mar 14;395(10227):912-20.

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