Even before COVID-19, the percentage of Americans struggling with mental health issues was on the rise. Added stressors from the past year – social isolation, unemployment and economic losses, and working from home while caring for children and other family members – have contributed to an increase in mental health issues like anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Here Feneisha Franklin, MD, Internal Medicine Associates Lexington, answers questions about improving our mental health.
Q. What kind of changes have you seen in your patient’s mental health over the past year?
I don’t know if I would describe the challenges and changes in my patient’s mental health in 2020 as different from the challenges of their mental health at any other time; instead, I would say 2020 highlighted and magnified the issues that were always there. What we all experienced this past year was the aftermath of weeks, months, and even years of self-neglect.
All of the noise from work, travel, extracurricular activities, etc. were silenced and we finally had to stop and start paying attention to the person that never leaves us. Through the lens of quarantine and social distancing, we saw ourselves, we saw our families, we saw our friends, and we experienced life from a different vantage point. With no where to run, I saw my patients forced to confront their lives and make tough decisions on how to move forward.
Q. While many people are excited to return to in-person work, restaurants, movies and other large gatherings, some may have anxiety about being in close proximity with others. What advice do you have for them?
Take it one step at a time. First, if you have not received your vaccine, please schedule your appointment. It is one extra level of protection that can help you with protecting yourself and others so that you can return to in-person activities.
If you are immunized, go at your own pace. Try a picnic or outdoor restaurant and continue to follow the advisory set forth by the CDC. In time, things will get back to a sense of normal, but it is important to have patience now as we all work to get back to in-person activities safely.
Q. Many people used more alcohol or other substances to cope with the stress of the last year. How much is too much?
The 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise no more than two drinks per day for males and one drink per day for non-pregnant females. These are guidelines that largely match those from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
But for some patients, no level of alcohol consumption can reliably be regarded as safe. Examples of this are: pregnancy, personal or strong family history of alcohol use disorder, or alcohol-associated hepatic or pancreatic disease. I will say it is important to follow the guidelines and speak with your physician to make sure you are not going past an advised consumption amount.
In regard to other substances, such as tobacco, there is no safe level, and they should be avoided.
Q. If someone has feelings of anxiety or depression or thinks they may misusing substances, what can they do?
You are not alone. Please reach out to us; we are here to serve you! There are many services available, including counselors, social work, etc. So, if you are feeling this way, please schedule an appointment with your primary care provider so that we can help.
Q. It can be uncomfortable to talk to a friend or family member about their mental health. If someone is concerned about a loved one’s mental health, what can they do?
The most important thing you can do is LISTEN. Do not pass judgement but show that you are supportive. Offer assistance in seeking help and come up with a plan to ensure your loved one receives the care they need.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like people to know about mental health?
It is sometimes easier to accept a diagnosis of high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol than a diagnosis of depression or anxiety. Mental health issues are illnesses of the brain. There are medications, therapy, and other things we can address to treat mental health issues. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. And always remember - you can contact your primary care provider to discuss your concerns. We are here to help you.
Feneisha Franklin, MD, Internal Medicine Associates Lexington