COVID-19: Fear psychosis being largely ignored, says doctors

The mental health aspect of the spread of virus remained largely unaddressed, said Dr Nand Kumar, professor of psychiatry, AIIMS.

Published: 20th March 2020 11:42 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th March 2020 11:42 AM   |  A+A-

(Source: WHO)

Express News Service

NEW DELHI: With reports of people fleeing from quarantine facilities in various parts of the country and skipping screening tests, psychiatrists say the fear of isolation is severe among people amidst the outbreak. On Wednesday, a suspected patient of coronavirus jumped off the Super Speciality Building of Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi and died. Though police is yet to ascertain the reason for his action, mental health experts say stress and anxiety over the pandemic is increasing. 

The mental health aspect of the spread of virus remained largely unaddressed, said Dr Nand Kumar, professor of psychiatry, AIIMS. “In any pandemic, there is a guilt that comes into patients — ‘why me’ — and with it the burden that the person may infect many other people.” At quarantine centres, while the staff remain focused on monitoring the facilities, there is little sensitisation among them on how to provide psychological support to those being quarantined. “In cases where people don’t have the infection but are being quarantined, they are suffering from severe anxiety,” added Kumar. 

The other area which remains largely ignored so far is the mental health burden on doctors and nurses. The lack of guidelines on how they should handle the crisis is the need of the hour, said psychiatrists. Dr Kushal Jain from the Centre for Behavioural Sciences said the message that should be put before the community is that precautions are necessary so that the transmission can be contained. “The biggest thing happening is uncertainty of what is going to happen in quarantine and the social distance from family and friends. Also, there is a strong fear of stigma as people feel they will face social ostracisation from the community.” Dr Nimesh Desai, director, Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences feels actions like avoiding isolation shows lack of a sense of social responsibility and discipline.

How to address social stigma

When talking about coronavirus, certain words (i.e. suspect case, isolation…) and language may fuel stigmatising attitudes as they can perpetuate existing negative stereotypes, strengthen false associations between the disease and other factors, create fear, or dehumanise those who have the disease. This can drive people away from getting screened and quarantined. Avoid using such words


Social stigma in the context of health is the negative association between a person or group of people who share a specific disease. The COVID-19 outbreak has provoked stigma and discriminatory behaviour against people of certain ethnic groups and anyone perceived to have been in contact with virus 

Stigma can

  •  Undermine social cohesion and prompt possible social isolation of groups, which might contribute to a situation where the virus is more, not less, likely to spread 
  •  Drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination 
  •  Prevent people from seeking health care immediately 

Tips on how to counter stigmatising attitudes

Stigma can increase by insufficient knowledge about how COVID-19 is transmitted/treated. Prioritise dissemination of info on vulnerable areas/people, treatment and info

Use simple language and avoid clinical terms. Social media is useful for reaching a large number of people with health information at relatively low cost

An “infodemic” of misinformation and rumours is spreading more quickly than the current outbreak of coronavirus. 

Engaging social influencers such as religious leaders or celebrities on prompting reflection about people who are stigmatized and how to support them

Facts, not fear will stop the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

  •  Share facts and accurate information about the disease 
  •  Challenge myths and stereotypes  regarding the disease
  •  Choose words carefully. The way we communicate can affect the attitudes of others 


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