In the Know: Navigating the pandemic’s impact on mental health
June 11, 2020 8:41 p.m.
Kristin Snyder: My name is Kristin Snyder, and this is “In the Know.” Coronavirus has impacted almost every aspect of normal life – even previously menial tasks like grocery shopping now face added challenges of wearing masks, swerving out of people’s way and standing in long lines. Many people are also working from home, and UCLA students have been navigating the challenges presented by an online spring quarter.
On top of figuring out this new space, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, about 45% of adult Americans have experienced negative impacts on their mental health due to the pandemic. Balancing their mental health and online courses, many students find their attention wandering. Paige Shannon, the marketing director for UCLA’s Healing through Art club, said the pandemic has increased her anxiety, as it has left her feeling more isolated. Gone are the days of walking around campus to clear the second-year music history and industry student’s head – now, even just finding the energy to self-start her schoolwork is a challenge.
Paige Shannon: You’re at home. Your phone is right here. Everything’s at your disposal. You can walk around anywhere you want. Some classes don’t even make you turn your camera on, which is the most dangerous one because in those classes I will literally just zone out. But I feel like it’s really hard to focus because your mind just wanders. There are other things going on. You can even be in bed. You know I think there’s a distinction between there’s the time you’re at school and you’re like, “OK, my brain has to be on and focusing.” And then home is where you go to de-stress. But now those lines are blurred because you’re always at home. And I feel like it’s also really messed up my sleep schedule. And so that’s made it harder to focus too, because I’m up super late and then I’ll have a 9 a.m. class. I’m drinking two cups of coffee throughout the entire class just trying to stay awake. Not even focus, just stay awake and not fall asleep.
KS: Students aren’t the only ones trying to cope with the pandemic’s impact. According to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), first responders like health care providers are likely to have a heightened response to the stress caused by the pandemic. Medical personnel spend their days seeing the first-hand impacts of the virus, often also handling the emotional weight of conducting patients’ final correspondence with loved ones. Many graduating medical students will be entering the field in the coming months, facing a lack of personal protective equipment, long hours and exposure to the virus. PRIME reporter Zinnia Finn spoke with some students preparing to face these challenges. Haley Vertelney, who is going into emergency medicine at UCSF, said she had plans for this short period between graduation and her residency – vacations to Japan and Hawaii, road trips and camping excursions. Now, no longer able to celebrate this big milestone, she said the lack of structure has been detrimental to her mental health.
Haley Vertelney: I think that the way the government has been handling this is particularly disheartening, and I think that it’s really kind of clarified to me how undervalued doctors are in a lot of ways, which it’s hard to feel super excited about going to work when there doesn’t seem to be enough, like really basic, protective equipment to go around. You hear all these stories about ER doctors getting sick, ER doctors committing suicide and getting pay cuts, like kind of all of those things together like makes it seem not like the most fun time. So I would say that my excitement to go to work is less because there’s this pandemic going on and more because this is something that I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. I have felt moments, like some pride in like, “I’m going to go to this cool thing.” And I truly believe that this is a defining moment definitely in my lifetime and in my generation’s lifetime, and to be able to participate so directly in it is at least interesting, if not exciting.
KS: Stress and depression are not new issues within the medical field. Chris DeMatteo, who will be starting an emergency medicine residency at Mount Sinai in New York City, has previously studied burnout in the medical field. According to the New York Times, medical workers are often already at risk to mental health issues. People treating COVID-19 patients are likely to face anxiety, depression and insomnia on top of preexisting issues of burnout. DeMatteo said entering the workforce now comes with added anxiety related to coronavirus.
Chris DeMatteo: My research during medical schools on burnout in the medical field. It’s been a big issue for me and now we’re facing burnout in an unprecedented way. I read an article just this morning about how health care workers are already experiencing PTSD from the things they’ve seen and the kinds of experiences they’ve had from this pandemic. And I think now more than ever, we’re going to have to be extremely vigilant for ourselves, for our co-workers, for everyone around us about the effects on mental health that this pandemic is going to have on all of us. In much the same way that this COVID pandemic has disrupted the shape of American society, I think the burnout pandemic is going to disrupt the shape of the health care industry.
KS: Knowing the pandemic will impact people’s mental health, there are a number of tips and free resources available. The CDC recommends creating a personalized list of enjoyable activities, turning away from the news at times and asking others for help. Students have turned to a number of different resources to cope. Shannon has found that even picking up her guitar for just 30 minutes a day can help clear her head. And she often turns to her favorite artists’ live streams, live Pheobe Bridgers’ Pitchfork live stream, as a distraction. HART has been hosting online events in hopes of creating a virtual community for students. Through Zoom, they’ve had art meditation events and a dance session, as well as a nature walk. HART president Liz Reichner said practicing mindfulness in her daily activities has helped her find a sense of peace.
Liz Reichner: Me and my sister created a business. We’ve been making sourdough bread, and we’ve been giving it to our neighbors. And it’s so good. Sourdough bread is so good. We had to make a sourdough starter, and we’ve been keeping it alive. And that’s really fun because you’re nurturing a little baby. We’ve made cinnamon bread, which is really yummy. And we’ve also made these brown butter toffee chocolate chip cookies, which are delicious. And we’ve also been selling those, so we’ve been making extra money on it.
KS: As a second-year art student, however, creating has been her major outlet. Even just viewing art has offered an escape for many – the Fowler Museum at UCLA now offers online exhibits after closing to the public in March, and the Getty Museum has video footage of its exhibits and a free virtual library. Even without access to formal art therapy, making art at home might be a soothing resource for people.
LR: I think the most reflective pieces I’ve been doing are with charcoal because I’m usually a painter, and also I usually do portraits, but with painting and portraits, sometimes you can be too focused on, you know, the perfections or the likeness that you’re trying to capture. But with charcoal, and when you’re doing something that’s more abstract, you’re more focused on the stroke and what that stroke means to the whole painting instead of the physical likeness or what it represents. I think using charcoal on a piece of paper or even on a canvas and kind of relating that to yourself and what the whole piece means to you to emotionally has been really, really helpful. I’ve done multiple charcoal drawings and I’ve just let go so much. It’s just like, “What is the feeling?” I feel like that’s the whole basis of art therapy. It’s expressing yourself through art, but how did these mediums relate to your emotions? How can you put some paint or watercolor on paper, and what does that mean to you?
KS: But even with resources and tricks, the uncertainty and onslaught of news can be difficult to grapple with. Many face the challenge of wanting to remain informed while not becoming completely overwhelmed. Vertelney has been running on local trails, spending time with her mom and dog and speaking with her therapist. But even with these tactics, finding a balance remains tricky.
HV: I’ve also been really trying to be mindful about what media I’ve been consuming. I think it’s really easy to go down a dark hole of limited time and access to the internet. I’ve been careful to strike a balance between like being informed with the news, but not reading every single sensational story, because it gets exhausting. And it kind of makes me feel more powerless than I need to feel right now.
KS: The sense of powerlessness, however, also comes with the knowledge that, as they enter the medical field, they have the skills to help in a time of need. Typical stress relievers – hitting the gym, seeing friends – won’t be available to Vertelney once she does enter the field. But she said the opportunities UCSF offer will provide good experience. DeMatteo said he’s been speaking with his co-residents already, and find the general support for health care workers to be a source of encouragement.
CD: I’m excited to be a resource to lend support to health care forces that have been stretched very thin given this unprecedented strain on the health care system. And I’m excited to have the skills that I gained in medical school tested by this crazy environment. I think it’s going to be a defining feature of my generation and having trained in medical school and in residency during a pandemic of this magnitude is really going to test us and hopefully will ultimately make us stronger.
KS: UCLA students in need of crisis support can reach Counseling and Psychological Services at 310-825-0768, 24 hours a day. CAPS also offers a coronavirus anxiety workbook that contextualizes some of the emotions students may be experiencing and offers tips for working through them. Health care workers can look into the Emotional PPE Project, which offers a directory of licensed, volunteer mental health workers providing counseling at this time. Thanks to Zinnia Finn for contributing reports, and special thanks to my guests Chris DeMatteo, Haley Vertelney, Liz Reichner and Paige Shannon.