COVID-19 a PTSD threat says neuropsychologist

CLINICAL neuropsychologist and head of the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre at The University of hte West Indies (UWI) Mona, Dr Dennis Edwards is warning that the experience of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic could result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among large swathes of the Caribbean society.

Other than healthcare workers, who would be disproportinately affected given their role as front line workers, the groups which he said were among those particularly vulnerable are children, worshippers, politicians.

“There is another line of caregivers; another line of frontline workers who I think we are largely ignoring that ought not to be ignored, and these are the political leadership. I am inclined to think they are not the most popular in the society, but to the extent that they have to be dealing with and treating with the management of the crisis, we might also want to lend some attention as to how they are coping psychologically and socially,” Dr Edwards argued.

“Because, at the end of the day there is that responsibility that they have, for example making decisions that run in conflict with the freedom of citizens – for example Jamaicans abroad wanting to come back home which is a freedom you are constitutionally entitled to, but a political leadership may well take a decision that under the circumstances you cannot be allowed to do that,” he pointed out.

Edwards was one of five panellists participating in a forum hosted by the Caribbean Sociological Association (CASA) last week to examine the social fallout occasioned by the pandemic.

The neuropsychologist said the potential for PTSD is made acute because the restrictions on physical contact and other measures imposed to contain the spread of the virus run counter to Caribbean social norms.

“We, as Caribbean people, are more interactive. We tend to always be touchy-feely, gregarious, and outgoing and in a context like this it is putting a toll on Caribbean people’s emotions. Social distancing, or more accurately, physical distancing, is not the Caribbean way.

“I am inclined to think that our emotional experiences will be adversely affected. Aspects such as our sleep, our appetite, our sense of self can be adversely affected… because we are not accustomed to being locked inside and there is a possibility that we might well have, as an outcome of all this, a sort of claustrophobia where you are affected because of how much you are locked in,” he told the forum.

Dr Edwards said, too, that not being able to physically gather for worship as is customary could take a toll on worshippers.

“We can develop certain amount of pathologies that can well ensue because we are not accustomed to these experiences…We have a 24-hour outdoor population by virtue of even our climatic conditions and our sociology,” the clinical neuropsychologist added.

“Caribbean people might even right now be anxious and experiencing what we call vicarious post-traumatic stress – wondering and fretting about their colleagues and friends in other parts of the world where the impact is even greater up to now. So there is the risk of post-traumatic stress injury that can culminate in post-traumatic stress disorder,” he explained.

Asked whether these issues were being sufficiently addressed in the communication around the pandemic, he said, “Perhaps not. I think we are doing a reasonable enough job in terms of response in a general kind of a way, but at the emotional level I am not so sure we are doing enoug,h and if we are not we ought to be making preparations for whatever fallout there might well be.”

Dr Edwards said in this respect, CASA, The UWI, the psychiatric association, the social work association, and the faculty of social sciences are “well-positioned to actually guide that sort of response”.

Addressing the psychological impact of the pandemic on children, particularly those who have family members in quarantine, Dr Edwards called for a shift in focus.

“Frankly, from my standpoint, kids now being away from school, I would be putting less emphasis on the whole business of the curriculum and maybe putting more emphasis on even just managing the change in their experiences and their environment, because they may have a disorientation to time given that they are outside of their usual schedule,” he posited.

In the meantime, he said “The therapists in the sociology community and the psychology community will have to get together in determining how we will assist in managing their reintegration.”

This, he said, was because “many of these kids may very well end up being so uncertain about what’s happening in their environment that they might well and could well exhibit regressive emotional, psychological, and physiological type behaviours”.

“Those who were dry, not wetting the bed may well be wetting again. Kids who are usually calm, quiet, and content may become irritable, boisterous, and restless and a whole range of psychological symptoms from this which is, in fact, a trauma,” he reasoned.

The CASA forum was titled ‘Covid-19 & the Caribbean: Social Fallout and Response’ and was hosted last Wednesday in conjunction with the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social & Economic Studies and the Department of Sociology, Psychology, and Social Work at The UWI, Mona.

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