Mental Health & Traveling a World with COVID (and its Variants): Q+A with Dr. Nathan

This past year, more than 40% of adults in the United States reported experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, compared with 11% in pre-pandemic times. According to On Call’s Medical Director, Dr. Nathan, “Managing one’s mental health — whether they have a history of mental illness or not – has become increasingly important in the world we live in today. And while the travel landscape has drastically changed as a result of the pandemic — and not to mention new variants such as delta and now the latest, omicron — there’s no reason to be consumed with panic — especially since there are vaccines and boosters that can help protect us from life-threatening illness.”

Interested in learning more about mental health in today’s evolving travel climate? Dr. Nathan is here to help by answering the most frequently asked questions we’ve received to date on this topic, as well as some actionable advice for travelers and their organizations.

The new omicron variant has caught the world off guard- do you have any advice for travelers who are struggling with feelings of anxiety surrounding the new variant?
Dr. Nathan:
At this point, we have limited knowledge of the omicron variant.  There are some optimistic notes in some of the initial observations from one facility in South Africa.  At this hospital, most of the admitted patients were admitted for other reasons and were found to have omicron variant COVID-19 on routine testing.  Most of the patients are not oxygen dependent, they have needed fewer medical interventions than usual COVID patients, and most are not unvaccinated. There is also some early research suggesting that the booster can decrease the chance of infection, even with omicron, and decrease the chance of severe disease.

The virus variant is still being studied, but for now: the illness from this variant appears to be milder and the vaccine with a booster will probably decrease the chance of infection, especially infection leading to severe disease.

If a traveler is vaccinated, does this mean they should feel less anxious about travel, especially now considering the omicron variant?
Dr. Nathan: Travelers should feel more secure about their health if they’ve been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.  The vaccine and booster reduce the risk of contracting, developing a severe case of, requiring hospitalization for, or dying of COVID-19.  That risk can be reduced even more by wearing well-fitting masks indoors, frequent hand washing, and social distancing especially when indoors.  Travelers should also research their destinations by checking for travel advisories and vaccination requirements.  These risk reduction measures are effective for the newest COVID-19 variant, omicron. 

If a traveler is anxious about traveling in a world with COVID and its variants, what steps can they take to alleviate this anxiety?
Dr. Nathan: Anxiety is fueled by uncertainty and knowledge can be a strong weapon in one’s favor.  It’s important to differentiate between real risks and overblown catastrophes.  This is particularly true when a new variant is first identified, as we often don’t have enough information about its effects. Some tips to share with your travelers to help alleviate anxiety include:

    • Do your research using reliable sources, and take reasonable precautions based on that research.
    • Know your anxiety triggers, and pack tools to help you manage those triggers.  This could be anything ranging from relaxing music, a journal, meditations, breathing exercises, or a distracting novel.  Take a quick walk when you can; it will release some feel-good endorphins and help you relax.
    • Plan ahead without over-planning.  Do any needed COVID testing early.  Give yourself extra time to get through lines.  Carry food to stave off hunger.
    • Most importantly, be kind to yourself.  Most people have some anxiety about travel now and you are not alone.

Do these steps differ if the traveler is diagnosed with a mental health condition?
Dr. Nathan: Not necessarily.  If the traveler works with a mental health provider, they should collaborate with their provider to together to develop a plan for travel.  The plan should include tips for anxiety management as well as general management of their condition. The plan should also include medication management and developing a strategy to use telemedicine to stay in contact with their providers while they travel.

In regard to medication management, what are some best practices for traveling with medication for mental health medications?
Dr. Nathan:
Certain destinations may have limits on the amount or type of medication a traveler can bring into the country. Travelers are typically allowed to have a 30-day supply of prescription medications.  Scheduled substances such as ADHD medications (Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta), anxiety medications (Xanax, Ativan, Valium), and pain medications (oxycodone, hydrocodone) are frequently banned or severely restricted in many countries.  Travelers who take these medications need to check with each country’s respective embassy prior to travel. Medications should be in their original prescribed containers and should be packed in carry-on luggage.  Travelers should carry a copy of the prescription for each medication, along with a letter from their healthcare provider that includes their name, a list of their medications and dosages, and the reason for taking the medication. If travel plans to a country that does not allow those medications are known, the traveler can work with their mental health provider to try alternative methods of managing their condition.

If a traveler has had anxiety in the past but hasn’t had any recent episodes, should they still incorporate plans for addressing potential challenges into their pre-travel preparations—especially with COVID (and its variants) in the picture?
Dr. Nathan:
Absolutely! Travel is exciting, but sometimes it can be stressful.  Fatigue from travel, a different environment, changes in daily structure, and communication (language) barriers can all trigger episodes.  Even travelers with no prior mental health history can have challenges as they acclimate to the environment in a foreign country.  Being prepared can minimize those stressors and allow travelers to enjoy their time.

If travelers experience a mental health issue abroad, how can they go about getting help? 
Dr. Nathan: Depending on a traveler’s location, access to mental health professionals may be limited—and even when services are available, language and cultural differences can cause some barriers to receiving care. I highly recommend travelers work with their organization’s travel risk management provider for resources and assistance with obtaining the care they need in their destinations. This could include telehealth support, or even arranging a medical evaluation since there are some medical conditions that can appear to be a mental health issue. The most important thing is though is to have a plan and a 24/7 resource for your travelers to call if they need assistance and support.

 

Want to learn more?
On Call’s clients are encouraged to consult with us for the most up-to-date information on their destinations and recommendations around COVID risk prevention and mental health planning for travel itineraries and programs. For everyone else, please feel free to get in touch with us for more information on our pre-travel consulting and planning services, as well as how On Call can help protect your travelers with customized mental health and travel risk management services.

 

 For over 25 years, On Call International has provided fully-customized travel risk management and global assistance services protecting millions of travelers, their families, and their organizations. Contact us today and watch our video to learn more. You can also stay in touch with On Call’s in-house risk management, travel health and security experts by signing up for our quarterly Travel Risk Management (TRM) newsletter.

The information provided within this post has been compiled from a multitude of available sources, and is based on the current news and situational analysis at the time of writing.