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Coronavirus: Panic and phobia on rise, doctors put many on anti-anxiety medication

A 37-year-old man working in Bandra-Kurla Complex first went to a general physician and then sought psychiatric help when his fear did not subside despite repeated tests clearing him of the virus. Both have been put on mild anti-anxiety medication by D’Souza.

Written by Tabassum Barnagarwala | Mumbai |
March 12, 2020 7:08:49 pm
Coronavirus: Panic and phobia on rise, doctors put many on anti-anxiety medication A flurry of news on Covid-19 on social media has led to panic. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

EXCESSIVE INFORMATION on coronavirus also has its flip-side, as Mumbai-based doctors have realised in the last few days. So much so that many have received patients suffering from a combination of anxiety and phobia over coronavirus-related updates. The medication being prescribed — mild tranquillisers and anti-anxiety pills.

Psychiatrist Dr Avinash D’Souza said he came across three patients, who feared they had coronavirus even though they hardly had any symptoms. One of the patients, a 34 year old working in a multinational company, had to undergo precautionary thermal screening every time he entered his office, which is also equipped with sanitisers at every corner since the outbreak began in China. “Due to some pest control work in his office, he developed a cough. He underwent two X-rays and both reports cleared him. But he still felt he had coronavirus. That was when he was referred to me,” D’Souza said. The 34 year old’s family said that he suffered from panic attacks. “His company also dealt with South Asian companies, so he felt transmission of the virus was possible,” D’Souza said.

A 37-year-old man working in Bandra-Kurla Complex first went to a general physician and then sought psychiatric help when his fear did not subside despite repeated tests clearing him of the virus. Both have been put on mild anti-anxiety medication by D’Souza.

The Bombay Psychiatric Society does not have an official figure yet on such cases.

General physician Dr Anil Ballani from Lilavati hospital said he receives eight to 10 patients with upper respiratory infections every day. Of them, at least two or three feel they have coronavirus, he added. “I have to counsel them, explain the symptoms. If they are not convinced, I refer them to a psychiatrist.”

Ballani has now started prescribing mild transquilisers to such patients. Most, he said, come wearing a mask, and keep sanitising their hands. “This is good but they keep it doing it more often than required,” he added.

Dr Shubhangi Parkar, head of psychiatry department in KEM hospital, said such behaviour triggers in people who already suffer from anxiety. “We saw such cases during swine flu and dengue outbreaks, even during demonetisation,” she said.

She added that phobia is a condition that leads people to avoid certain behaviour they are scared of, and panic can be described as acute anxiety coupled with phobia. “Coronavirus is in people’s psyche. They are being bombarded with news on social media and it has led to panic. Theatres, roads and offices are running with half the capacity,” Parkar said.

Psychiatrist Dr Sagar Mundada, who has received two patients in a week, said both were healthy, had no symptoms but thought they suffered from coronavirus. “The fear is unprecedented. Even ringtones of phone calls have an alert message. For those even with mild anxiety, this is a trigger point,” he said.

One of his patients, a woman, had not been going to work for a week fearing she will catch the infection. She has stopped watching news channels and reading newspapers and avoided social gatherings. “Her family realised that she was panicking and brought her to me. I have prescribed anti-depressants for two weeks and asked her to go to office. She is yet to start going out,” Mundada said.

While some have removed themselves from social circles, others suffering from panic attacks are spending three to four hours every day on phone to look for coronavirus updates, authorities at Masina hospital’s psychiatry department said.

The hospital have received 12 patients, with no health problems, who have been tracking news on coronavirus for 3 to 4 hours a day. “Two of them reported unusual symptoms… they had a live tracker of the infection on their phones and were constantly checking the news, fearing it will come to Mumbai,” said consultant psychiatrist Dr Natasha Kate.

She added that this “disorder” is more common among working men and women and those who are extremely cautious about their health.

General physician Dr Nandu Vijay said people suffering from common cold, runny nose and sneezing need not worry, as these are not signs of coronavirus. “Right now people with dry cough, breathlessness and any direct or indirect contact with travellers from abroad need to report to doctors. We conduct an X-ray, if it shows pneumonia patch then they are referred to a government hospital,” he added.

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