We’ve all seen the thriller films whereby deadly diseases suddenly infect the planet and within the blink of an eye, half the population is wiped out, society has turned to a raging mess, and a small group of invested scientists battle to create a cure. This time of year we’re used to being warned of the spread of influenza but we cannot ignore the recent epidemics of a multitude of diseases from the Zika virus, to the Ebola virus. The Australian flu, otherwise referred to as H3N2 also raged on the news over the festive period due to its resistance to vaccines and its ability to strike down even the healthiest person. It was just another stark reminder that these types of illnesses can spread like wildfire in no time and can strike at any given moment causing medical complications at any age.
The psychological burden of facing each winter season with the possibility of illness is something many deal with, particularly those who are already vulnerable. While the marketing of flu vaccines has reached its peak, there are still many who go without protection or suffer grave bad luck and become infected with a different strain than expected. You only have to turn on the news or read the paper for a millisecond to see that our National Health Service is buckling under the severe pressure that winter illnesses create, the majority of which are said to be snowballed by those who are dealing with vulnerability in their respiratory system. The psychological burden becomes not just limited to the patients themselves, but the ripple it creates on their loved ones and the medical professionals that are pushed to breaking point as they desperately battle with limited support. The references linked are a mere drop in the ocean in comparison to the wealth of reports and interviews seeping out that are revealing the true extent of the winter crisis and the devastation on staffing and increased stress levels.
One research study in Australia investigated the implications of dealing with an epidemic of equine influenza and found that some population groups were more susceptible to psychological distress including worry, while another Dutch study concluded farmers were at higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder if severely impacted by foot and mouth disease. While these studies are focused more so on animal disease outbreaks, it can be possible to identify that when trying to ascertain the true repercussions of illness epidemics, it’s bigger than simply looking to the physical impact of being a statistic in the affected population.
Investigations into the impact of human-based epidemics have found trauma to be one of the most common consequences as survivors struggle with grief, guilt, and upsetting memories of something that is considered to be so inhumane. Even after the event, many will struggle to return to a normal way of living, relationships will break down and the taking on of unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drugs increases more so than if the individuals hadn’t been subjected to such distressing circumstances. The Ebola epidemic between 2014 and 2015 had limited literature regarding the true impact of psychological distress and aftermath, however, one study found a wealth of negative consequences attributed to the loss of loved ones and the economic struggle. Depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsiveness, paranoid ideation, hostility, and fear of future illness were some of the recognised burdens with a calling to better identify the psychological ramifications when there is any significant disease outbreak that causes high mortality.
While these films are designed to fool us with the immediate fear of escaping from something that we cannot outrun, it is important to identify that for those who do survive such dramatic epidemics, the impact of illness whether recovering or immune is still something that has to be established to help the affected population recover. However, instead of assuming this psychological ripple can only be caused by a symbolic mortality rate, it could be worthwhile adopting interventions on a smaller scale, for example on an annual basis when the NHS is pushed to its limits dealing with the winter crisis. Therefore, if the day comes that we do have to face a horror-inducing contagion of disease outbreak, we can consider ourselves better faced to deal with the psychological ramifications which will ease the burden of its overall devastating impact.
Katie Bagshawe is Psychreg’s Health Psychology Correspondent. Katie is currently pursuing her MSc Psychology degree Sheffield Hallam University after completing a BSc Computing degree from the University of Cumbria. After acting as her father’s carer in his final years with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, she has become impassioned to do research in the Psychological impact of Progressive Lung Disease and hopes to continue doing a PhD in the same research area. You can connect with her on Twitter @KBagshawe