SEOUL, March 5 (Korea Bizwire) — The coronavirus outbreak seems to be taking a psychological toll on ordinary South Koreans, as well as suspected and confirmed patients, as many people have been struggling with fears of infection, depression and other abrupt changes in their psyche over the past one and a half months, mental health experts said Thursday.
The experts said “psychological quarantine” warrants further attention, as mental health problems caused by COVID-19 can be as serious and detrimental as rising casualties and economic losses from the disaster.
Since the nation confirmed its first coronavirus case on Jan. 20, fears about the infectious disease have been rapidly spreading among the public.
Such fears are expected to further escalate, with the number of infections and deaths approaching 6,000 and 40, respectively, in South Korea.
Some people say they constantly feel nervous about catching the virus, while others say they are afraid of going out and meeting with people.
Confirmed or suspected patients say they experience stronger feelings of anxiety about social stigma and loneliness from extended isolation.
The National Center for Disaster Trauma said it has been flooded with service requests from confirmed patients, people under self-quarantine and citizens struggling with virus-related panic, fear, stress and other emotional strains.
“Patients and people discharged after hospital treatment complain of anxiety about being a burden on society, going outside the home and extended isolation at home,” an official at the center said.
“There is also growing demand for counseling from ordinary citizens dealing with fears of catching the infectious disease.”
The official said many ethnic Koreans from China have also complained of mounting stress from unfriendly attention and watchful eyes from their Korean neighbors.
The state-run center said it received a total of 540 counseling requests from coronavirus patients and their families between late January and early this month.
Mental health and welfare centers run by metropolitan and provincial governments nationwide received 18,060 counseling requests from quarantined people and ordinary citizens during the same period.
Kwak Keum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University, said a massive panic appears to have been caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“Continued thinking and imagining about COVID-19 tends to increase anxiety, phobias and distrust of people,” said Kwak.
“People with pathological anxiety are advised to seek help from professional counselors, as just the act of opening up to someone will have great healing effect,” she said, asking them to reduce disaster-related news consumption and divert their attention to hobbies and other things.
COVID-19 has also become a major topic of online psychological counseling offered by private counselors.
A YouTuber specializing in psychological counseling recently opened a Kakao chat room on coronavirus-related stress and fears and as many as 110 people took part in the chat within several days.
Most participants said their anxiety has worsened from watching virus-related news every day.
One said he hardly slept for two days due to worry about mounting infections among followers of a religious group, while another complained about a worsening of panic disorder and difficulties breathing.
Meanwhile, the municipalities of Seoul and Daegu, the southeastern city hardest hit by COVID-19, have recently established their own psychological support groups consisting of psychiatrists, emergency care professors and mental health professionals.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said his government will further strengthen psychological counseling services, noting a municipal website offering 15 kinds of content on coronavirus-related psychological assistance recorded 4,367 visits and 8,244 page views from Feb. 24 and March 2.
In Daegu, more than 100 professional counselors belonging to the city’s psychological support group are offering counseling services to citizens, patients and suspected patients via telephone (1577-0199) 24 hours a day.
“Normal levels of anxiety and slight stress are natural. But if such phenomena persist for more than several days and disrupt daily life, psychological counseling is needed,” a Daegu official said.