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Psychiatrist Dr Michelle Atchison’s thoughts on grief and isolation

Dr Michelle Atchison agrees with Matthew that, as Covid-19 imposes isolation on the grieving, it is an important time for professionals in the grief area to reach out to their patients.

She is the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Chair of Private Practice, and also works in private practice in Adelaide.

Dr Atchison explained some of the practical limitations as well as showing how the psychiatric profession is responding.

“Overnight, our workload has changed completely, as has the way we work with people,” she said.

Dr Atchison said the needs of most psychiatrists’ patients have increased under the pressure of Covid-19. People who had psychological, emotional and mental health problems before now have many more stresses: “It is a particularly traumatic time for our patients.”

She said most psychiatrists have now moved to doing telephone or video consultations.

“It’s not quite the same but it is important that patients can see our faces and we can see theirs. So there are real challenges for elderly patients who have old-style landline phones that don’t have any video capacity. Just coping with the technology itself can also be difficult for them.

“But we encourage video consultations, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, that type of technology, since it’s really important for us to keep seeing our clients. We are also quickly having to upskill ourselves.”

Owing to the extreme busyness because of patients’ needs, having to adjust to new ways of working, and learning new techniques, Dr Atchison explained that it is unlikely for most psychiatrists to be able to pro-actively ring their patients.

“And it also wouldn’t be appropriate for us to just ring everyone out of the blue. Having said that, if someone lets us know they want us to be pro-active and phone them, then I’m sure most psychiatrists would try to work out a way to do that. 

If patients have very urgent needs and can’t reach their psychiatrist, she suggests they ring Lifeline or Beyond Blue or other similar services.

“But I acknowledge it’s difficult to call up and talk to someone who doesn’t already know your story. It can re-traumatise people to have to tell their story over and over again.”

New administration pressures also have to be taken into account and these will slow the speed of responses down. 

“These things might seem tiny but, for example, we usually write our scripts for medications and hand them to the person when they’re in front of us. But because they’re on the phone, we have to fax the script to their pharmacy. It’s these extra time burdens that add up – and unfortunately, make it hard for us to respond as quickly as some would like.”

Read Matthew’s story of grief in Covid-19 isolation here.

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