Dr. George Hu, chief of mental health at Shanghai United Family Hospital in Shanghai, is offering free online therapy to mostly foreigners in Wuhan. He’s also training volunteers to staff a mental health hotline.
Hu, who is American but speaks Chinese, says that many people are reaching out for help because they can’t access their normal support networks.
Wuhan residents have been under lockdown for over six weeks now as a result of COVID-19 — and the death toll in the city of 11 million has surpassed 2,000 — higher than anywhere else in China.
More than 116,000 people have contracted the coronavirus worldwide since it surfaced in China late last year, according to the World Health Organization. More than 4,000 people have died.
Italy, which has the highest death toll outside of China, has put its entire population of 60 million on virtual lockdown.
Although the virus has shown signs of slowing down in China, as marked by President Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan on Tuesday, the situation has taken an enormous toll on people’s mental health.
“Many people have lost family members and are dealing with the trauma of that. And dealing with family members and loved ones who are sick, but their diagnosis has not yet been confirmed. That’s a heavy, heavy burden.”
“Many people have lost family members and are dealing with the trauma of that. And dealing with family members and loved ones who are sick, but their diagnosis has not yet been confirmed,” Hu said, adding, “That’s a heavy, heavy burden.”
Even for those not directly affected by the outbreak, it’s a challenge dealing with anxiety about the virus and the ramifications of being stuck in a confined space, working from home and taking care of kids.
Hu says the energy taken up by anxiety around the coronavirus means people have less energy to devote to their families and work.
“People’s emotional regulation is a finite resource. So, you use it up in one place and you have less of it available for someplace else,” Hu said.
People are losing their tempers, arguing more.
Merry Zhao is a therapist in Jiangsu Province. She volunteers the night shift on a national hotline set up to address the virus outbreak. She’s been fielding calls from all over the country, including Wuhan.
“At the beginning, the calls were so frequent that you’d hang up from one call and immediately another call would come through, but this week the volume of calls is dropping a bit.”
“At the beginning, the calls were so frequent that you’d hang up from one call and immediately another call would come through, but this week the volume of calls is dropping a bit,” Zhao said.
People from all walks of life are being affected, she says.
“We’re seeing three types of anxiety: severe anxiety about the virus and fear of death, general anxiety and depression, and health care workers worried about contracting the virus. And then there was a doctor who called whose colleague had been infected. He was very sad and afraid, but he felt he had to stay strong,” Zhao said.
For many families, being confined together is really stressful. For other families, the problem is being separated from each other.
Eric Li knows this firsthand. He runs a communications equipment system integration business in Wuhan and has an 8-year-old boy. His wife and adult-age daughter traveled to Los Angeles before the Chinese New Year and now can’t return. It’s been hard to adjust.
Suddenly, he is alone in caring for his son. “All of a sudden, I have to take care of him. I don’t know how to raise him, I don’t even know how to cook. I don’t have a lot of patience,” Li said.
Li, who typically spends a lot of time traveling for work, now stays home, makes simple foods like rice and noodles and helps his son with homework.
“There is a lot to worry about, taking care of the kid, running my business. At night, after he goes to bed, I’ll stay up looking at the news on my phone,” he said. “And then the next day, I’m tired and don’t want to get up, but I must because I have to cook for the kid.”
As time goes on and people are unable to return to work, financial problems are also a worry. Li is paying 68 employees’ salaries, but none of them can work right now.
“I can’t tell anyone my anxieties about the company’s finances. Of course, I need to pay my employees, but if the business is closed for so long, then that’s a lot of pressure.”
“I can’t tell anyone my anxieties about the company’s finances. Of course, I need to pay my employees, but if the business is closed for so long, then that’s a lot of pressure,” Li said.
Evan Zou, a young business owner who is helping get supplies to hospitals in need, said everyone in Wuhan now knows someone around them who’s dead.
“Right now, two people in my family are dead and two people are in the hospital right now,” Zou said.
Zou says these days he’s spending a lot of time helping his parents manage their anxiety. They’re divorced but live in the same apartment compound.
Zou says his mom struggled at first, but now she’s keeping busy playing mahjong all day. It is his dad who is having a hard time. He doesn’t have any hobbies, and he’s getting lonely.
“At the beginning, my mom cried every day, but now my mother is relaxed and doing exercise, but my dad is saying, ‘I want to go out,’” Zou said.
A few days ago, his dad tried to escape the compound. Zou had to help the guards convince his dad to come back inside.
For himself, he says, the only thing he can do is stay busy. So, he's learning Japanese, exercising, organizing volunteer efforts and reading.
Everyone in Wuhan is dealing with pressure, sadness and anxiety. But most people are trying to find small ways to exercise some sense of control in a situation where there’s still so much uncertainty.
At the same time, many people in Wuhan say they have learned what’s most important in their lives. And that gives them hope during this time of fear and loss. That's something Hu, from the Shanghai hospital, can attest to.
“One silver lining is that you can separate things into what’s important and what’s not,” Hu said. “Virus or not, it can help us make decisions about how I’m going to live my life. That’s a valuable lesson.”
Reuters contributed to this report.