COVID-19 and Mental Health: Part 2 (Interview with Dr.Laura Cancelliere)

What are the potential mental health implications of public health crises like COVID-19?

Public health crises can cause panic, fear, confusion, misunderstanding and misconception. Public health officials have to balance warning [or informing] the public and not initiating a [counterproductive] cycle of panic and fear. [If you] recall, at the beginning of this pandemic there was a lot of focus on correcting misinformation and calming the public. As [the pandemic] has become more serious, the public health officials have transitioned their focus to emphasizing the importance of measures of social distancing.

We know one of the most advocated public health interventions is social distancing. Who is the most at risk? 

It is important to recognize that everyone really is at risk. In the Western world, we haven’t lived through a pandemic where social distancing has been recommended to this degree. These are unprecedented times and anyone is at risk of mental health implications. People would be surprised. 

[Some] of the most vulnerable are people who live alone and rely on a social network for their relationships are particularly at risk. They can’t visit friends and family and it can be very isolating. Elderly people need to take an extreme approach to social distancing because they are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 which can be very difficult.

People with young children are also at risk. How do you teach your children about social distancing and a pandemic without provoking fear and affecting their relationships?

Anyone in the essential service industry, such as health providers, have a high risk for contracting the illness. This can be very stressful and distressing. Inherently you know you need to do the work you’re trained to do, but it is at the risk of affecting your family.

People who already struggle with ongoing mental health issues, especially mood disorders, anxiety, depression, etc. will be at risk. If you have a precondition to that this is a very stressful time and/or could trigger a history of past traumatic events.

What do you recommend for people with heightened levels of anxiety during this? What supports and resources would you recommend your patients?

It’s very important for people to maintain a routine for this [pandemic]. There will be a period of transition and you will need to create a new routine for being at home. 

I think it’s important for people to rely on technology to connect with people virtually. Technology is a double edge sword because we may want to limit our screen time; the constant flow of media and news can propel panic. It’s important that people try to strike a balance between being adequately informed and [then] putting that aside to enjoy life and normalcy. If people are going to read news, review public health, government, town and city information [it is important] to avoid misinformation or misrepresentation of information. That [information] can further propagate fallacies and can worsen anxiety.

It’s important that people try to stay active. I’ve been impressed by gyms that are offering online classes and with no equipment required. As long as you’re not quarantined, don’t have symptoms, respecting distance, and not in close quarters with anyone, you can still go outside.

[People] who are very spiritual or [whose] faith is important to them, [often] cannot attend an in person congregation. [It’s important] they need to still lean into their religious communities and look into online ways to interface with their faith community.

There are also many mindfulness apps and resources that have been developed for dealing with a pandemic like COVID-19. Normally we make excuses that we’re too busy to do things like mindfulness, but now that we’re at home you can’t say you don’t have time for a 3 minute exercise!

It feels incredibly isolating right now, but remember that everyone is isolating together. Remember that even though the health system is busy right now, if you are feeling anxiety or mental health symptoms you can reach out to health providers for help. Many family doctors have transitioned to telemedicine, so they can be there for their patients and not let them be alone.

As a Physician, how has this affected your mental health and what are you doing to take care of your mental well-being?

People forget that physicians are people too. We are affected just like everyone else. We’re scared for ourselves, our family, friends and the public. We definitely have an added risk of exposure.

I am doing a lot of the things I recommended in the earlier questions, but also as a physician I get a lot of comfort in reading guidelines, literature and studies to stay informed. I personally make a point to limit my media coverage. I eat well, exercise and look at hobbies that bring me joy. For me that’s painting. I think it’s important to not lose touch in your community. Find creative ways to stay in touch with colleagues and friends. Watch a movie together.

What should Canadians top priorities for taking care of themselves and their mental well-being?

We need to get away from the “it’s not going to happen to me” mentality and take advice from the public health and policy makers that social distancing is necessary and not voluntary. By staying home we are protecting ourselves, our neighbours, our friends and our healthcare workers. I also think it’s not going to help the public if you panic and hoard things. 

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash