The novelty and contribution of this study lie in its socioenvironmental context: it focused on an intervention delivered directly by psychiatrists in a hospital setting in an area with a large-scale community outbreak of COVID-19. Based on the results, patients in the COVID-19 ward mostly comprised women in their 60s and older. Among them, many who received psychological support had mild medical conditions; for instance, even if pneumonia was detected, supportive oxygen was rarely needed. This was due to the exclusion of patients with severe physical or neurological conditions. The SP group included older women, whereas the SN group comprised a relatively younger male population. However, no statistically significant differences were found among the two groups in terms of sociodemographic variables, quarantine histories, and severity of medical conditions. However, the SP group had a higher frequency for psychiatric histories (p=.034). A review of the results of additional questions was conducted to assess the possibility of deterioration of underlying symptoms due to decreased access to psychiatric treatment during quarantine. A total of 12 participants reported previous psychiatric history, which largely comprised depression (n=5, 16.1%) and anxiety (n=3, 9.7%), while others had sleep disorders, alcohol use disorders, and other mental disorders. Approximately 50% were on medication for psychiatric treatment immediately before the COVID-19 outbreak; but all of them had maintained themselves during quarantine. In the COVID-19 era, it is assumed that individuals with psychiatric histories may be more vulnerable to emotional stress, as opposed to the deterioration of psychiatric symptoms due to limited therapeutic accessibility. This trend has also been shown in several relevant studies: patients with a severe mental illness had only slightly higher risks for severe clinical outcomes of COVID-19, than patients without psychiatric histories [28, 29]. Patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19 and who had been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder had a 1.5-fold increased risk of COVID-related death, in comparison with COVID-19 patients who had not received a psychiatric diagnosis . The authors attributed this result to the potentially inflammatory factors and stress responses that the body experiences in consideration of prior psychiatric conditions, existing neurochemical differences, and vulnerability to respond to an acute stressor such as COVID-19 . In fact, a fifth of Australian soldiers dispatched to Somalia had psychiatric morbidity after 15 years, with risk factors for its occurrence being combat exposure and past psychiatric history . In another study, survivors of a devastating earthquake were tracked three years later, and were diagnosed with PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder simultaneously if they had histories of psychiatric disorders and traumatic experiences . Hence, psychiatric histories can affect emotional difficulties in stressful situations independent of current symptoms or treatments, which may be further influenced by factors such as individual ability to adapt to stress, ability to deal with emotional difficulties, and genetic vulnerabilities.
In terms of the effect of the psychiatric intervention, all participants from the SP group showed significant clinical improvements, but none from the SN group demonstrated any significant changes. However, all participants reported statistically significant reductions in the sum of the PC-PTSD-5; the SP group showed a significant reduction in positive scores and scores from the SCL-90-R in GSI, PSDI, and depression scale. The CGI-S pre- and post-assessment scores for all participants ranged from 2.25 to 1.53, meaning that, on average, participants went from “borderline mentally ill” to “normal, not at all ill.” The mean CGI-I value was 3.25, which is equivalent to “minimally improved.” The pre and post CGI-S value in the SP group was 2.71 and 1.76, respectively, indicating that, on average, there was a decrease to “mildly ill” from “borderline mentally ill.” The mean CGI-I value in the SP group was 3.00, corresponding to “minimally improved.” For the SN group, the pre and post CGI-S values were 1.36 and 1.09, respectively, which did not differ significantly.
Overall, the PC-PTSD-5 decline is believed to be based on the adaptations needed to reduce immediate acute stress. The program was effective in improving participants’ normal adaptation response to acute stress and preventing them from experiencing chronic aftereffects. An example of this acute intervention is psychological first aid (PFA) . It is a globally implemented approach to help people affected by an emergency, disaster, or other adverse events, designed to reduce the initial distress and foster short- and long-term adaptive functioning and coping . Many traumas hence do not escalate to PTSD, empowered by individuals’ natural resiliency. Such findings are embedded in the concept of PFA, which has eight core components: Contact and engagement, Safety and comfort, Stabilization, Information gathering, Practical assistance, Connection with social support systems, Coping information, and Linkage with collaborative services . The goal is to inform survivors of the services available to them. Our intervention also has all eight core components, with particular emphasis on stabilization and coping information. It can be interpreted as having effects similar to those of the PFA.
For the SP group, which displayed high levels of psychological difficulties, there was a clinical need to target relatively diverse illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia; however, the number of screening positives decreased after the intervention. This means that experiences of more severe symptoms of certain illnesses were reduced, which is also supported by the GSI reduction in SCL-90R. Essentially, this primary intervention reduced the severity of clinical problems, while simultaneously reducing stress (as implied by the change in SCL-90R PSDI value). The PSDI is a measure of participants’ response styles, reflecting overestimation or underestimation of symptoms . Acute adversities distort individuals’ perception, but our intervention improved their perception and sense of self-efficacy.
This study has some limitations. Firstly, interviews and evaluations with psychiatrists were largely conducted without face-to-face contact to prevent the risk of infection. This limits the practice of using tools that allow doctors to observe and evaluate patients directly. Further, the effectivity of non-personal/non-contact interviews for forming therapeutic alliances (as compared to conventional interview techniques) is yet to be determined . However, based on a prior study, telepsychiatry was found to be feasible in a wide range of settings, across psychiatric treatments, in different ethnic groups and populations, and all age groups [38, 39]. An increasing number of controlled trials are demonstrating its effectiveness in specific treatments and exploring wider benefits, such as cost savings associated with reduced travel, improved care coordination, and cost avoidance through early treatment [40–42]. Previous work has specifically described the potential for using telemedicine in disasters and public health emergencies [43, 44]. In other words, it is a useful method worthy of further evaluation, especially as the risk of infection continues to increase. In this regard, our research is valuable as it provides the basis for telephonic psychiatric consultation and proves its utility in disaster situations. Additionally, some of the aforementioned limitations can be overcome if applications that allow video meetings are used.
Secondly, there may be a possibility of selection bias, as the study was conducted with inpatient ward patients of the hospital. Not all confirmed cases are admitted to hospitals, and in the case of usual or minor symptoms, many self-quarantine in their homes or community centers. According to data released in April 2020 by the Korean government, patients in their 20s accounted for 27.2% of total cases, followed by those in their 50s (18.8%), 40s (13.4%), 60s (12.6%), and 30s (10.5%). However, in our study, people in their 60s and older accounted for the largest percentage; hence our finding that 66% of participants reported experiencing emotional difficulties may be an overestimation due to participants’ ages. If this program is performed at various agencies in the region, we believe that the impact of these selection biases will be reduced. Despite the above limitations, this study suggests an approach to psychiatric intervention while following safety rules during the pandemic, and promotes healthy adaptation reactions in stressful situations to reduce mental symptom severity and resultant stress. Moreover, since most of the studies conducted during the COVID-19 outbreak have been observational, it is notable that this study conducted direct psychiatric interventions, and that the emerging treatment pathway of teleconsultation has been introduced and assessed for effectiveness.