A great deal of attention has been paid to the physical consequences of pandemic flu and the damage it could cause in terms of illness and death. But a widespread outbreak of infectious disease may also have equally damaging psychological consequences.
In the event of a pandemic, workers may become seriously ill and won't be able to go to their jobs. Children may be forced to stay home from school. If an outbreak spreads and medication or basic necessities are in short supply, panic could occur. In each case, people are almost guaranteed to feel a heightened level of mental stress, fear, frustration and other emotions.
Such mental health consequences could linger long after an outbreak passes. People who have experienced a traumatic event, such as natural disaster, disease outbreak or other health emergency, can experience feelings of fear, grief, depression or, in the long term, post traumatic stress disorder. In fact, an April study found that eight months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, more than half of Louisiana and Mississippi residents living in emergency trailers were suffering from major depression.
To help communities mentally cope during a flu pandemic, the American Public Health Association recommends that officials:
* monitor the mental health of the public and make sure needs are being met, among other measures.
* share simple, thorough information on reactions to stress with residents so that they know what to expect and help promote hope, resilience and recovery;
* use speeches, memorial services and television specials to help manage community distress and loss; and
Officials also need to keep in mind the needs of people who may need extra help mentally coping during an outbreak, such as seniors, parents, emergency response workers or those with pre-existing mental illness.
As with any crisis, the best way to manage is through prevention. As May is Mental Health Month, now is the perfect time to stop and think ahead about what you, your family or community might need to help cope if and when the worst happens. For resources that can help you become more prepared, visit APHA’s Get Ready or National Public Health Week Web site.