The tragic news that emergency room doctor Dr. Lorna Breen died by suicide highlights the psychological dangers facing patients, hospital staff, and their families coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a mental health crisis affecting the general population and the physicians and health care workers who are tasked with caring for COVID-19 patients. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half of Americans report the ongoing pandemic is harming their mental health. Feelings of isolation, concern about unemployment, and fears of becoming infected or re-infected with the virus have led to intense trauma relating to overexposure to death and feelings of helplessness.
A novel therapy, currently being tried and used in Israel and Asia, shows real potential in helping allay the psychological stress of patients, families, and healthcare professionals. The results from a small study have already shown therapeutic promise.
When Israeli-trained clinicians in Asia looked at a small group – 36 people who were experiencing psychological stress from the COVID-19 pandemic – they saw dramatic results through an innovative procedure that replaces anxiety-provoking and guilt-inducing thoughts with positive ones. Researchers assessed stress levels before and after a therapy session lasting five to 30 minutes. Psychological stress levels decreased in almost 90 percent of the patients.
The procedure, called Self-Care Procedure for COVID-19, can be conducted online or via telephone. The therapist teaches patients to use a technique that involves tapping their fingers on their arms or legs to recognize negative COVID-related thoughts and replace them with positive ones. This procedure can be used as an intervention with individuals who are having difficulty coping with the emotions and real-life stressors related to the coronavirus.
Typically, a clinical trial would be conducted before administering new therapies to patients. However, considering the magnitude of this crisis, this innovative therapy should be made available immediately. At a time when psychological stress is at an all-time high, we have a medical and ethical need to develop new therapies before depression becomes rampant.
The Self-Care Procedure for COVID-19 was developed by the EMDR Institute of Israel and is based on the lessons learned through treating victims of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference.
Though the precise neurological mechanisms of EMDR remain unknown, one psychological theory is that it uses a combination of memory recall and therapy with guided eye movements to interrupt negative thought pathways. It allows individuals to reprocess negative or traumatic memories in such a way that the memories become associated with more positive, adaptive ones. The Self-Care Procedure for COVID-19 uses tapping, rather than eye movements, so it is suitable for telephone and online therapy sessions.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, doctors and scientists have been working overtime to test novel viral treatments for COVID-19 and allowing patients to have access to medical therapy that may not be tested but may save their lives. Psychological trauma should be addressed with the same commitment and intensity, and we should relax ethical norms in testing, as yet, unproven psychological therapies.
Under normal conditions, randomized clinical trials are, of course, the most effective method to assess any therapeutic intervention. Sometimes, unprecedented times calls for unprecedented risks. We do not have the luxury to be cautious or to be afraid of error
The above was co-authored by Gary Quinn, a board-certified psychiatrist and director of The EMDR Institute of Israel. He is a lecturer at Hebrew University School of Social Work, and on staff at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.