People separated from loved ones and work due to potential illness report negative psychological impact even 3 years later.

Quarantine is the removal from contact with the general population of a person who may have been exposed to an infectious disease like the coronavirus. When people who actually have the disease are separated it is called isolation.

A study published this week in The Lancet summarizes a number of research reports which investigated populations who were quarantined. For many, it was a bad experience with mental health impact lasting long after the quarantine ended.

In the 3-year period following quarantine, incidence of PTSD in the quarantined population was 4 times that of people who were not affected. As many as 60% of those who experienced quarantine reported symptoms of depression.

Only 5% of those impacted remember a positive experience when quarantined.

The isolation and boredom of the experience led to increased rates of fear and anxiety. Quarantines that approached or exceeded 10 days were the most damaging.

For people in quarantine an extension of the quarantine period, no matter how long, exacerbated any sense of frustration or demoralization.

Ironically, two of the key negative impacts of quarantine were the inability to receive proper medical care and the inability to refill prescription medication.

Inability to acquire basic supplies such as food and water, and poor information from authorities also drove high rates of psychological distress among those surveyed.

While many individuals suspected of being exposed to a pathogen were negatively impacted, the most serious psychological effects of quarantine were found in healthcare workers removed from their jobs due to exposure.

While many negative factors were experienced during the quarantine period, the most significant negative experiences occurred following the quarantine period.

Loss of income led many into severe financial stress. Also, a stigma against those who were removed from the population was attached to people as they returned from quarantine.

Healthcare workers who were quarantined faced increased absenteeism, substance abuse and high levels of anxiety about contact with patients. Job satisfaction plummeted.

More positive experiences with quarantine were reported when the quarantine period was clearly stated and limited to the incubation period of the disease.

Complete and timely communication from health officials about the reasons for the quarantine and its likely outcome were crucial. And of course, availability of supplies and the ability to communicate with loved ones significantly determined feelings of well-being.

Altruism is powerful, and when quarantine was positioned as positive with broad societal impact, individuals fared better. The best outcome was reported by healthcare workers who were given the option to enter quarantine voluntarily.

As quarantines are enforced as we face the coronavirus, people should be carefully and positively told what is happening and why, and how long the quarantine will last. They should be provided with meaningful activities and given clear and unlimited lines of communication with their families. And of course, basic supplies should be arranged for.

We should also consider financial assistance for those who have to sacrifice so the disease does not spread, especially the healthcare workers who will have to quickly and without prejudice return to work and lend their skills to the job of defeating the virus.

George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time for Crisis is available now. To help independent bookstores working to stay open during the shutdown find the book here.

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