The smiling corona-captive

In spite of being cooped up in quarantine, trainee psychiatrist Dr Fabrizia Cassar’s smile never wavered. In approaching this interview, I was expecting all sorts, really. A grumpy person, moaning at fate seemed to be the least I could anticipate. I could not have been further from the truth.

Dr Cassar’s experience started with a phone call. As part of the contact tracing process which the Department of Health carries out with persons confirmed with coronavirus, Fabrizia was called up. A patient she attended to at Mater Dei had tested positive to the virus and that triggered the process. She was called in for a swab and asked to go straight home and observe a 14-day quarantine. “I was at home when I received the call and I had to pack my bags and leave to go to another house to quarantine,” said Fabrizia. In this way, if the test came out positive or she developed symptoms, she would be away from her family and they would not be risking contagion.

Think positive

“I tried to keep as positive an outlook as possible,” said Dr Cassar. The budding psychiatrist said that the first few days until she settled down were a tense period. She found it difficult to sleep as she was afraid that her family and colleagues may have caught the virus from her. “I felt like I was in a daze,” said Fabrizia adding that she could barely keep track of her conversations with friends and family.

Mindful of the need to keep the mind in good shape, Fabrizia worked on the old Roman adage ‘mens sana in corpore sano’. She initiated a routine for the day which started with a workout. Then she cooked, read, watched tv, used technology for a group yoga workout. A healthy regimen no doubt.

Pandemic affected mental health negatively

As a psychiatrist, Dr Cassar was assisting patients from a mental health point of view. The pandemic hit people hard, she said. The stress of COVID-19 had exacerbated situations which were already tenuous. She recalled patients who had not experienced schizophrenic episodes for over 10 years, persons who had been clean of addictions or compulsive behaviours, who relapsed due to the stress brought on by coronavirus. Closed up in houses, said Dr Cassar has also aggravated feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide and self-harm. The current circumstances intensified situations and feelings observed Dr Cassar.

Mental health operators to see an increased workload

The effects of COVID-19 said Dr Cassar will be felt in the months to follow. She said that after the quasi-lockdown we are experiencing, mental health workers will be very busy, both on existing cases as well as on new cases brought on by the pandemic fall out. She said that in these isolated circumstances, people will feel bereft that they would not have been able to giver their loved ones a decent funeral, others would be locked in a house where the relationships are not healthy while yet others would be under stress from working on the frontline. This will definitely increase the workload for mental health operators.

Dr Cassar observed that there are so many persons who are positive to the virus but are asymptomatic that the best recourse is to consider oneself as contagious and self-isolate. Social distancing should be rigorous but constant contact should be maintained so those feelings of isolation are dispelled.