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Coronavirus: Chinese Germany alumni provide support for psychological crisis management

Findings from practical experience in China useful for crisis management in Germany

Millions of people in China have been and continue to be in quarantine due to the Corona pandemic. In Wuhan alone the number was, at times, as high as eleven million. This acute crisis situation is causing many psychological problems and it is necessary that crisis management teams address these, both in China and other countries. This requires the expertise of medical staff and academics in the field of psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy. Chinese Germany alumni are making a significant contribution to this cause.

Chinese Germany alumni working as academics and medical staff have been contributing to the establishment of the still very much neglected disciplines of psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy at Chinese teaching hospitals and universities for the past two and a half years. Their work is being coordinated by the Alumni Expert Network for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy (DCAPP) under the direction of an expert team from Heidelberg University Hospital and the University of Freiburg Medical Center. This has been made possible by the fact that since 2017, they have received funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and support from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) within the framework of the Sino-German Alumni Expert Networks (DCHAN).

In the current crisis, their expert knowledge allows them to advise the Chinese health authorities on psychological crisis intervention. Many of the Chinese DCAPP members who are medics, psychologists and nurses working in the field of psychosomatic medicine, are also helping on site. Their assistance is in high demand, as the Chinese population and medical staff in particular are having to deal with extreme emotions, including panic, shock, confusion, anger, grief, guilt and helplessness.

DCAPP experts advise health authorities on psychological crisis intervention

Prof. Zhao Xudong, head of the Pudong New Area Mental Health Center in Shanghai, is one of the DCAPP project partners. Together with colleagues, he chaired an emergency meeting on psychological stress levels among the population in the context of the spread of coronavirus. China’s National Health Committee has already drawn up guidelines for “psychological care for the population in need” based on these results. Prof. Zhao’s team also recently sent three psychiatrists to Wuhan to provide support. These included a member of the DCAPP mentoring group, a training programme for young researchers in the field of psychosomatic medicine.

Dr Li Wentian, who is also a member of the DCAPP mentoring group and Director of the Clinical Psychology department at Wuhan Mental Health Center, is jointly responsible for psychological services in Wuhan, where the virus originated. Prof. Wei Jing and Prof. Zhang Lan, who are DCAPP cooperation partners, are in charge of emergency psychological services in Beijing and Chengdu. All four are currently offering supervision for dealing with people suffering from exceptional cases of emotional stress (including panic, grief, anxiety, depression and trauma), looking after medical staff who are under great stress and providing psychological care for seriously ill patients, including palliative work. Hotlines staffed by qualified personnel in the field of psychology have been set up. Free online courses on psychological health and psychological self-help have been established for the benefit of the general population and overstressed medical staff. These measures are being coordinated by the Chinese Governmental Committee for Health and the Committee for Psychological Counseling and Psychotherapy.

Analysis of initial statistical data of relevance for Germany

Dr Li Wentian recently analysed the initial statistical data from the psychological services he provided in Wuhan and shared this information with DCAPP members. A total of 2144 calls made to the hotline during the period 4–20 February 2020 were evaluated.

This evaluation revealed that 47.3% of the callers had symptoms of anxiety, 19.9% had problems sleeping, 15.3% had somatoform symptoms, 16.1% had symptoms of depression and 1.4% had symptoms of other emotional states (loneliness, fatigue and restlessness). 39% of the callers sought support in managing everyday tasks (shopping, travel, dealing with medical diagnosis and treatment, acquiring protective masks, etc.). 19.6% reported anxiety, restlessness and sleeplessness caused by media reports of the epidemic and society’s reaction. 15.7% reported panic, a tight feeling in the chest and physical symptoms without suspicion of pneumonia (somatoform symptoms). 4.3% had symptoms of pneumonia and were concerned that they might be infected. 21.4% had other psychosocial problems (such as interpersonal conflict within the family and problems at work).

Emotional stress can have physical manifestations

Emotional stress can also manifest itself in the form of physical complaints such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, gastrointestinal complaints, dizziness, headaches, difficulty falling asleep and nightmares. The extent of the long-term psychosocial consequences of the globally-transmitted coronavirus will only become apparent in the coming months. The alumni network currently provides a platform and infrastructure for quickly exchanging and transferring skills and expertise, sharing contacts and initiating effective measures. Now that the centre of the pandemic has shifted to Europe, these direct experiences are of significant relevance to both the Chinese members of the network and their German colleagues. These experiences could also help to improve the situation in Germany and in Europe.

Sino-German Alumni Expert Networks (DCHAN)

DCHAN was established by German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The network unites German and Chinese academics, as well as professionals and interest groups from industry, politics and society in Germany and China. With the support of the DAAD, its members are currently conducting research into and working on the following seven areas:

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Humanities and social sciences
  • Logistics
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Neurosciences
  • Psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy
  • Urbanisation and urban development

March 2020

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