Counseling eases psychological toll of outbreak

Li Fei Ma Xuefeng
As the novel coronavirus winds down in China, now is the time to focus on mental health and emotional wellbeing. A new Shanghai hotline is open for people in need of support.
Li Fei Ma Xuefeng
Shot by Ma Xuefeng. Edited by Ma Xuefeng. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou and Andy Boreham.

New confirmed cases of novel coronavirus are decreasing in China, but many of us still experience mental and emotional distress after weeks of staying indoors.

As of March 17, 358 people had been diagnosed with novel coronavirus in Shanghai. Although the cases are less than one in 10,000 of the population, a number of people living in this city are now at risk of mental stress.

In late January, the Shanghai Psychological Assistance Hotline was launched to provide counseling during the epidemic period.

The hotline is operated by Shanghai Mental Health Center (SMHC), a center in collaboration with WHO for research and training on mental health, with more than 300 psychiatric specialists being leaders in the field. According to SMHC, the daily number of calls is up about 80 percent compared with before the outbreak of novel coronavirus.

The psychological assistance hotline (12320 ext 5) and the original 17 district hotlines were answered by more than 70 volunteers with professional training and psychologist licensing. A new line (5536-9173) has been opened especially for the epidemic. Both Chinese and English services are available.

A 24-hour service is available every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, while the line is open from 8am till midnight on other days.

Dialing the hotline is as easy as calling a friend, and you don’t need to register or pay.

“In the past month, I answered about 30 calls every day, and 80 percent of them were related to the outbreak of coronavirus. To make sure everyone indeed can get in, the normal time for online psychological consultation is 30 minutes. But if a caller has suicidal thoughts, we’ll not hang up until he or she calms down,” said Zhang Bing, doctor-in-charge of SMHC.

"The Holmes and Rahe stress scale has defined 43 stressful life events that can contribute to illness, such as the death of a close family member, change in health of a family member or change in working hours or conditions. The current outbreak of novel coronavirus can cause many of these events, so a psychological consultation can help you get through," Zhang explained.

Counseling eases psychological toll of outbreak
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

The office hosting Shanghai's psychological assistance hotline

For me, after 20 days of staying at home, I also felt depressed. I called the hotline and got connected after three busy calls and about five minutes' waiting.

Most of the time, the person on the other end of the line was just listening and answering.

I told him I felt anxious and unhappy recently. He asked, “Are you sitting now?”

“Put your feet on the floor, tell me how your muscles are feeling right now?” he asked.

My attention was suddenly diverted. Focusing on how my body feels relaxed my mind.

Throughout the call, he was guiding me to say what I really thought about.

If you hide your true feelings from your friends, or even family members, he said, making an appointment for a talk at the mental health center may be the best solution.

Taking advice from the hotline, I made an appointment for psychological consultation at SMHC. For me, it was the first time and I was a little nervous.

Before counseling, you're required to sign an informed consent form, a commitment to keeping whatever you share confidential.

“Morning, Miss Li!” Su Yousong, doctor-in-charge of SMHC, said to me. 

The psychotherapist won't call you by your real name, to make you feel more relaxed.

The whole consultation process is like chatting with a friend.

"I often felt frustrated, insecure and sleepless in the past month," I told him.

"Do you find it difficult to sleep every day?" He asked.

I said I didn't want to go to bed, sometimes even not sleepy at 3am or 4am.

"Have you ever tried any means to help you sleep?" He asked.

"Watching TV series, reading books, but it didn't work much," I answered.

I felt a little tired throughout the conversation, and even though I could answer all his questions, it was a bit boring, I have to say.

However, when he asked me which TV series I had watched recently so that I could recommend to him, I suddenly felt interesting to talk with him. This topic saved the whole conversation.

At the end, the psychotherapist would give some advice.

"All we can do is help you know your true thoughts and face the reality. All problems still have to be solved by yourself," he told me.

Those with signs of mental disorder will be asked to take psychological tests.

“To overcome negative emotions, I recommend an app called Mood Thermometer, developed by SMHC, you can record your daily mood, do psychological tests by yourself; it also provides free psychological consultation online,” said Su.

“Proper exercise and social connections are important too. Outdoor activities can help to solve the problem of sleeplessness. If it doesn’t work, sleeping pills may be necessary; good sleep is really important for your mood,” Su added.

SMHC can provide psychological services in Chinese, English and Japanese.

Counseling eases psychological toll of outbreak
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Doing psychological consultation at Shanghai Mental Health Center.

Advice from Zhang Bing and Su Yousong for people with emotional distress

  1. Read the news of COVID-19 on official platforms, but don’t spend too much time on it. Just like eating the right amount of food, eat too much will result in indigestion.
  2. Don't just focus on the outbreak of coronavirus abroad and imported cases without focusing on responses and solutions.
  3. Do four things to relieve stress and anxiety: Don't eat lunch in the office. Eating alone once or twice a week. Keeping a regular sleep schedule. Do something romantic.
  4. The fastest way to get over your negative emotions is to identify them, feel them fully, and then let them change into something else.
  5. Psychological consultation can not solve all problem. Going back to work is important to keep many people healthy mentally.
  6. If you feel that there are some major changes in your sleep, diet and psychological state, such as lack of interest, unexplained fatigue and sleepless, and they affect your daily life and work, it is time to make an appointment for psychological consultation.

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