UF Health psychiatrist talks about the mental health challenges posed by COVID-19

It’s a pandemic seemingly without end. The latest coronavirus variant is fueling a surge in cases while Americans worry about ever-more infectious versions to come. The daily news is filled with talk of sickness, overburdened health care providers and the struggle to mask and vaccinate a nation. Jacqueline Hobbs, M.D., Ph.D.

It’s a recipe for a mental health crisis.

Jacqueline Hobbs, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Florida College of Medicine’s department of psychiatry, discusses the burden of coping with the stress caused by the upheaval of normal life and the need to pay closer attention to our mental well-being.

Question: The pandemic is a grind for us all 18 months in. Does its incessant nature make this a particularly difficult challenge for maintaining our mental health?

Answer: Absolutely. The pandemic is so prolonged that it becomes a chronic stressor. People don’t feel like there’s an end in sight. We get little glimpses of the finish line, but then we’re right back at it. You’re just chronically stressed, and all those stress hormones are quite high or just keep intermittently spiking. The other thing to remember, too, is that the pandemic has such a strong impact on every aspect of our lives. The fact that we have to wear a mask every day or think about how we’re going to protect ourselves or our loved ones wherever we go adds to a sense of constant strain. The coronavirus is never out of our minds. It’s all incredibly stressful in so many ways and affects the entire body, including our brain.

Q: What symptoms could indicate that we might be struggling with our mental health?

A: Anxiety and depression are high on the list. Worrisome signs and symptoms include prolonged sadness that occurs nearly daily for several days; loss of interest in things that usually bring us pleasure; not eating or sleeping and even eating or sleeping too much. Some of us might isolate too much, which is a tricky symptom during the coronavirus pandemic when we’ve all been isolating to some degree. But if we’re not getting outside or talking to others via phone or Zoom, then that could be concerning.

The pandemic can cause lesser symptoms that point to struggles with our mental well-being. Things like irritability, frustration, lack of concentration or anger that is out of our character. Difficulty making decisions in people for whom that is usually not an issue.

A big warning sign is obviously thoughts of death or suicide. If anyone is struggling with such thoughts, they should seek help immediately. At UF, resources can be found online at https://counseling.ufl.edu/resources/suicide. That website includes a number for a national suicide prevention “lifeline” at 800-273-TALK (8255).

None of us should be reluctant to seek out assistance from a mental health professional, even for lesser symptoms.

Q: What are some strategies we can follow to help keep a good mental equilibrium?

A: We have to take the opportunity, no matter how brief it is each day, to mentally check in on ourselves, to take a breath and just say, “How am I doing today?” Hopefully we do that every day, no matter what, whether we are in a pandemic or not. But I think it’s even more important now to check in on ourselves and each other.

A big thing to relieve this ever-constant stress is staying connected. And that’s been very hard. We obviously have all of these great technologies that are really wonderful. I can’t imagine what it must have been like 100 years ago when there was a pandemic and you had no idea how people might have been doing. We need to be able to stay connected as much as possible with our circle of friends and family. And even though we don’t encourage people to gather a lot, we can do things outside. You can exercise together and do fun things outside while maintaining physical distancing. We’re lucky to live in Florida because we can do that pretty much year-round.

You really need to stay attuned to your physical and mental health. Getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising. Exercise is especially important because it reduces stress levels and even helps us sleep. All those good things that we’re supposed to do for ourselves, right? We have to really get back to that as much as possible.

Q: The pandemic will eventually end. Returning to some of our pre-pandemic routines might be unsettling. How do we get used to a world without masks and physical distancing?

A: That is something to be reckoned with. We see this in people with chronic mental illness, when they do get treated and all of a sudden it’s like they’re kind of thrust into this new world. That can throw us off kilter. That’s kind of where we’re going to be. It’s this whole new world again. And even very positive things might still be stressful. Will we experience anxiety in a crowded movie theater or restaurant? Will we feel uneasy in an office again after working at home for a long period? Some of this may already be happening, for example, with children returning to school. Positive things can still be stressful. We have to be prepared for that. And again, we have to be very mindful of what’s going on, take inventory of ourselves and our mental health and seek support when we need it.

Q: How do we help children through the fear and anxiety of a pandemic?

A: I’ll preface this by saying I’m not a child psychiatrist. But I think we have to be open and honest with our kids. They know when we’re not being honest. They definitely have radar for that. Obviously, we don’t want to scare them too much. We have to really balance that, trying to protect them from the real world versus helping them to experience it in a positive way.
And again, if they need help, we should get them that help. We should talk to their pediatrician. If they need mental health care, we should make sure they get those types of referrals. But there are other forms of support, too. Just working with their teachers and counselors and things like that can be very helpful, too.

The biggest challenge with kids can be communication. They might not let us know when they’re hurting. With kids, if you ask them how they’re doing, you’re likely to get a one-word response: “Fine.” I think that we have to press maybe a little bit more and try to make it so that they feel comfortable to be able to come to us and talk about what they’re experiencing.

Media contact: Ken Garcia at kdgarcia@ufl.edu or 352-265-9408

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Bill Levesque

Science Writer

Bill Levesque joined the UF Health staff in May 2017 as a science writer covering the Institute on Aging and research of faculty physicians in the College of Medicine. He...Read More