The ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 not only killed thousands of people in that part of the world, but also created a sense of fear in the United States after several cases were diagnosed in this country. Although not discussed as much, there were also mental health consequences from the outbreak.
Yuval Neria, PhD, of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and colleagues say that supporting the psychological needs of infected patients, family members, health care workers and the public in general is as important as efforts to develop effective treatments and vaccines to combat ebola itself.
In a recent viewpoint in JAMA, Neria and colleagues write that the absence of mental health and psychosocial support services, as well as a lack of well-trained mental health professionals in West Africa only served to increase psychological distress among people there. They add that in Liberia and Sierra Leone, there is only one practicing psychiatrists, and only a few dozen mental health nurses.
They recommend a rapid assessment of psychological stressors related to the outbreak for civilians and health care workers is needed. In addition, an intervention providing psychosocial support in emergency settings and adapted to the Ebola outbreak, should be rapidly implemented and maintained through the recovery process. The intervention should target high-risk populations, such as stigmatized survivors, family members of victims, and health care workers who have witnessed death.
In the United States, the group calls for a science-based risk communications strategy “to counteract the tendency for fear messaging and political agendas to dominate the media.” Such messaging could include reassuring public health messages that emphasize the low number of infected patients and high recovery rates. They also recommend psychosocial support for patients, family members and survivors following discharge from hospital. In addition, support is also needed for health care workers.
Neria Y, et al. The 2014 Ebola Outbreak and Mental Health. JAMA. 2015; 313(6):567-568.