3 people share how they survived an epidemic with a serious mental illness

One in 20 Americans battled a serious mental illness before the epidemic hit the world’s mental health. How are these people?



Leila Fadel, Host:

More than 1 in 20 Americans struggle with serious mental illness, with issues such as bipolar disorder or severe depression with psychosis. And then came the epidemics and traumas that plagued the world’s mental health. Yuki Noguchi of NPR is examining how these people worked. Hi, Yuki.

Yuki Noguchi, Byline: Good morning, Leela.

Fadel: So what is the definition of a serious mental illness?

Noguchi: Yes. Experts say that it is defined by psychosis, the loss of touch with reality. Common forms include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, which affects about 5% of the population.

Fadel: And how did Kovid affect those who are struggling with serious mental illness?

Noguchi: Well, as far as their physical health is concerned, people with schizophrenia, for example, were both more likely to be infected with covid and to die from it. But not much is known about how Covid has affected their mental health. Researchers and doctors say that a lot depends on the patient’s condition. For example, did they have housing or family, you know, an income or access to healthcare? And they were already a challenge for these people because these illnesses often hinder school or young careers or dating. And with that comes the high rate of isolation and poverty anyway. But people with serious mental illness have also told me that they are accustomed to dealing with crises.

Fadel: Now, you mentioned that losing touch with reality is a key feature of a serious mental illness. But the epidemic has normalized some strange things, such as wiping out groceries with sanitizers, which we usually …

Noguchi: That’s right.

Fadel: … Associate – Yes.

Noguchi: That’s right. For example, how do you distinguish between reality and illusion in an epidemic? And, you know, a Boston man named Peter describes how these lines became blurred for him. Peter is 41 years old and grew up in Romania under the brutal Cousescu regime. There was a lack of food and freedom did not exist.

Peter: There was no privacy in Communist Romania.

Noguchi: There was government surveillance everywhere. A family member was tortured and killed for speaking out.

Peter: You were afraid of your neighbor. You never knew if he would be an informant for the secret police.

Noguchi: Her fears of psychosis and epileptic seizures begin to intensify so much that she still sometimes turns black and dismembered. So for Peter, paranoia was a survival skill and a symptom of his disease. Eventually, Peter moved to New Jersey and graduated with a degree in business and computer science. Then in 2015, he read a book by Harvard cryptographer Bruce Snyder. It warns of a lack of online privacy. Reading it aroused the ghost known to Peter.

Peter: I don’t want to be in Communist Romania. I didn’t cross a sea to get back to where I left off.

Noguchi: In job interviews, he grilled potential employers about their privacy policy. No one met with his approval, so he refused to take the job. He even lost his home. For three years he slept outside the Cambridge Public Library. Eventually, she received treatment, an apartment and felt better. Then the plague struck. Soup stopped arranging dinner in the kitchen, so he couldn’t get in touch with the people who helped him keep his reality check.

Peter: Looking at the masked people, I thought they were trying to protect themselves from the offensive cameras that were posted all over the city, all over the subway.

Noguchi: Misinformation about covid and vaccines has made reality even more slippery. Social media seems to control political discourse. All this is the legitimacy of his fears.

Peter: If I read the news, which I do every day, I think I’m not sick, that things are unfolding just like Bruce Snyder’s prophecy. But then, of course, I read my diagnosis, and it tells me right there that I’m schizophrenic, I may have paranoid confusion. So I don’t know.

Noguchi: So, Leela, you see that it was difficult to distinguish between reality and paranoia in the epidemic. But Peter goes on to say that crisis and fear are familiar to him. He has dealt with it all his life.

Fadel: Yes. So how representative is Peter’s experience? How is the overall rent of this population?

Noguchi: It’s hard to say. You know, doctors and researchers tell me that it depends a lot on a person’s situation, such as whether they had access to help or accommodation or treatment. For example. Hannah Brown, a psychiatrist at Boston Medical Center, works at an ER and says patients there have more severe symptoms and need to stay in the hospital longer, such as two to three times more than pre-epidemic.

Hannah Brown: It speaks to the severity of the disease over the last two years, as it is getting significantly worse.

Noguchi: On the other hand, many patients were able to navigate. Benjamin Dras is a professor of public health at Emery University.

Benjamin Drass: They have proven to be quite resilient. The many coping methods that people have created, they are able to use well when they hit a huge pressure like Kovid.

Noguchi: Drus says the widespread adoption of telehealth has certainly helped, at least among those who have an Internet connection. So, again, a lot depends on how defensive people are for anchoring them for that stability.

FADEL: Protective factor – What is an example of a protective factor?

Noguchi: Well, the family is a good example. As such, having a family can be primarily defensive. In 2019, for example, I met a man in Seattle named Emile (ph) just before the epidemic. At the time, his depression and psychosis were so severe that he underwent electroconvulsive therapy, which left him forgetful and unable to take care of his family. But we kept in touch. And then I went back to the lockdown for a few months and what he said surprised me.

Emil: Whatever happened, I’m doing really well. I was even amazed at how my health had improved.

Noguchi: And an epidemic life was easy for him. He did not have to travel or pay for day care and his wife said he slept more. And teletherapy was convenient. I actually heard him smile for the first time.

Fadel: Wow. So it helped him. What happens when something is not defensive?

Noguchi: So family isn’t always a source of support, is it? A New York woman named Monique told me that the epidemic had left many old family wounds of physical and sexual abuse. He developed depression and psychosis in his teens. Then during Kovid, three members of the family died. Racial tensions and declining incomes strained her relationship. And then her boyfriend left.

Monique: And that was my net, my security net. This is even more irresistible when you are alone because to whom are you going to disclose it? As such, you are expected to be able to tell your family and friends.

Noguchi: So it’s a familiar area for people like Loss, Isolation, Trauma, Monique. So how many obstacles did they have in the epidemic? It determined how well they did.

Fadel: NPR health correspondent Yuki Noguchi, thank you very much for your report.

Noguchi: Thank you.

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