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BNU helps diffuse mental health issues triggered by outbreak

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-03 12:04

With the ongoing battle against the new coronavirus-related pneumonia, psychologists at Beijing Normal University are offering help to people with mental health issues triggered by the coronavirus outbreak.

On Jan 27, the university launched a hotline, open from 6 am to midnight, to offer psychological counseling.

According to Qiao Zhihong, a professor at the university's psychology department, who is in charge of the psychological counseling team, the team consists of around 300 people, including teachers, students and alumni of the university. On Jan 27, over 300 people called in to seek advice on mental health issues.

"Feelings of confusion, fear, agitation, grief and anger that are caused by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak are commonly seen among those seeking help," says Qiao, adding that the majority of the people who called in are not infected.

"People need to ask for help. They worry about their health and that of their family members. They are also concerned about the situation as well as the disruption to their lives caused by the coronavirus outbreak," says Qiao. "What we do is listen and communicate with them, offering them about 30 minutes of psychological counseling. We will also employ other approaches, such as music therapy."

Qiao says that there is a normal and immediate stress response that comes with a sudden event like a virus outbreak.

When the coronavirus outbreak began, Chinese people were about to celebrate Spring Festival, the biggest traditional festival of the year. "People have had to cancel their travel plans, parties with family and visits to friends, which has brought about a lot of negative emotions. These emotions need to be relieved," Qiao says.

Besides the hotline, Qiao's team also offers online psychological counseling through social media platforms, such as WeChat and QQ. They've collected some of the most frequently asked questions and released the answers on social media, hoping to help more people in need.

The psychology department of Beijing Normal University has a 40-year history, while the university's School of Psychology was established in 2001-the first ever at a Chinese university.

According to Qiao, the university previously organized psychological counseling teams during the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003 and following the earthquake in Wenchuan in Southwest China's Sichuan province in 2008.

On Jan 27, Guangzhou-based psychological counselor Guan Ruxin received a message on her social media from a nurse in Sichuan province, who works for a local infectious disease hospital.

They had a 90 minute phone call and Guan learned that the nurse's hospital is in urgent need of materials, including protective equipment and medical supplies, because most medical resources were pouring into Wuhan, Hubei province, the center of the new viral outbreak. The nurse told Guan that many nurses and doctors in her hospital don't even have enough masks.

"She cried during our talk. She was very sensitive, nervous, depressed and unable to sleep, even though she was so exhausted," says Guan. "She is an experienced professional nurse, who wants to give her patients the best possible care. However, she had been under a great deal of pressure and couldn't tell her family as she didn't want them to be concerned."

"I listened and let her know that I understood her. I helped her to relax with deep breathing and meditation, calming her down gradually. What she needed was to let go of these emotions, be alone and get some sleep," Guan says, adding that many of her colleagues, who are also psychologists, had volunteered their counseling services online.

It's important for people to protect their health by eating nutritious meals, exercising and getting enough rest, Guan adds.

According to a report by the Beijing News citing the Wuhan Mental Health Center, many organizations have volunteered to offer free psychological counseling as "it was important that officials recognize the need to address public mental health issues".

The report also said that the local government of Wuhan has issued two letters to local citizens, offering them information and advice about how to relieve pressure, such as how to confront anxiety and how to divert their attention.

"Assisting people in these extreme conditions becomes tremendously important. Mental health is just as important as physical health," Guan says.

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