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Mental health conversations - Psychological impact on family members of critically ill patients

2021-02-05  Staff Reporter

Mental health conversations - Psychological impact on family members of critically ill patients
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Critically ill patients are usually placed in an intensive care unit (ICU) where they receive around the clock assistance from health professionals. By default, the ICU wards are known for limited visitations for the wellbeing of the patients. The current global pandemic has seen a surge of individuals admitted in the ICU wards. As a result, the existing Covid regulations that extend beyond Covid positive patients, present additional restrictions on hospital visitations for family members globally, including Namibia. 

Although these measures are necessary, the importance of mental and emotional health of both the isolated patients and their family members need not to be negated.  

The hospitalisation of loved ones during these taxing times elicits severe stress for family members. Family members are likely to exhibit the following psychological and emotional signs of stress:
    •    Depression or anxiety
    •    Anger, irritability, or restlessness
•    Feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated or lack of focus
    •    Trouble sleeping or excessive sleeping
    •    Racing thoughts or constant worry
    •    Problems with memory or concentration
    •    Making poor decisions

Recent research conducted on the coping by family members of critically ill patients indicates that family members’ psychological and emotional distress is mostly attributed to the uncertainty surrounding their loved ones’ prognosis because of the lack of communication that exists between them and the health professionals. In addition, the limited interaction and physical contact they have with their loved ones exacerbate the stress levels. 

Family members and caregivers are preoccupied about details, such as whether their loved ones are able to sleep through the night, whether 
they are experiencing pains and aches or whether they have access to food when they wake up in the middle of the night and might feel hungry. 

These concerns may be trivial for people who are not in the same 
shoes, however, remain serious concerns for those affected. 
So how can family members be supported so they can cope better with the distress they are experiencing? Empathy – the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes, sensing their emotions, their thoughts and feelings is the best gift you can extend to people in these times. When health professionals are able to imagine the experiences of the family members, and being intentional about communicating the progress of the patients with family members, it will help ease the emotional and psychological distress. 

Also, making provisions for family members to see their loved ones especially, when they are in the normal wards can provide comfort, hope and peace of mind to both the patients and the family members. Important to acknowledge is the shortage of health professionals, the strain they experience as well as their own health which is at stake. However, maintaining the core human qualities such as understanding the next person and having compassion is crucial for humanity, more so now. 

Other support systems – individuals who are in the capacity to render emotional or physical support to affected family members can contribute in small ways. Be it an occasional phone call, prayers, preparing a meal for the affected family, offering to run errands, such as paying bills which can still be done maintaining social distance can uplift the next person. 
“When we truly see others, empathy is at the heart of what we do.” 
Justine /Oaes
Biweekly ( 

2021-02-05  Staff Reporter

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