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‘A universal trauma’: Online panelists offer insight into coronavirus pandemic’s psychological effects

Dr. Helane Fronek, a physician coach and professor at UC San Diego, participates in an April 27 online panel on mental health.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

A panel of local mental health professionals detailed the psychological effects of the coronavirus pandemic and offered strategies for coping as San Diego City Council President Pro Tem Barbara Bry presented her latest installment of the “House Calls” webinar series.

All the professionals in the online panel April 27 said there has been a sharp uptick in mental health issues.

Dr. Helane Fronek, a physician coach and professor at UC San Diego, said the increase is due to the presence of “so much fear and uncertainty. Issues that were formerly tolerable are now totally overwhelming.”

Dr. Suzi Hong, an associate professor at UCSD, said the pandemic “is a universal trauma; all of us are impacted. There are multiple aspects of this impact,” from physical to emotional and financial to social, that she emphasized “not to raise alarm but to raise awareness.”

Marc Rosenberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said the situation brings about a “level of trauma we’ve never seen in our lives before. Families are having to make such drastic changes in the way they operate on a daily basis.”

Bry asked Fronek and Hong to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of doctors and medical workers experiencing chronic stress.

It’s a “traumatic experience for people working in ICUs right now,” Fronek said. “They’re working with an illness that we really don’t understand very well.”

She said it’s further “demoralizing when they don’t have good personal protective equipment or people are demonstrating or think this is a hoax.”

Hong said “acute stress leading to chronic stress can impact mental and physical health. We often think about brain health as separate from physical health, but they are closely connected.”

In the case of front-line doctors and nurses, a “cascade of chemical events” set off by “stress in the brain can affect the body’s immunity,” Hong said.

The “medical community should really monitor physical and mental health together and seek help as needed,” she added.

Dr. David Janowsky, a professor emeritus at UCSD, said financial hardship resulting from the pandemic has a “massive impact” on mental health. “It hurts self-esteem,” he said.

Fronek agreed, saying it’s not just about money “but a huge amount of disappointment, a sense of betrayal: ‘I did everything right and look at what happened to me.’”

She encouraged “giving yourself the space to acknowledge what this means to you and how it impacts your self-image.”

Bry asked the panel for help in speaking to children about the pandemic.

Rosenberg said adults should “be empathetic and understanding to [children’s] curiosity about the world” and that for smaller children, “having a developmentally appropriate conversation that allows them to understand” is preferable to dismissing their questions.

“Taking the time to interact with what’s happening,” providing “creative outlets” and “normalcy in their routines” are ways to help ease the stress on children, Rosenberg added.

Hong said the psychological stress on children and young adults is important to consider, citing “mounting evidence of adverse childhood events having lasting impact on mental and physical health.”

Turning to the topic of substance abuse as a possible result of social isolation, Janowsky said a “combination of substance abuse and other disorders like anxiety or PTSD is likely to happen and is probably happening now” as people are “having more time on their hands and a lack of support.”

Janowsky said he searches for ways to “encourage people to do things that aren’t self-destructive,” such as “get involved with self-help groups remotely.”

Marc Rosenberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist, offers suggestions for coping with pandemic-related stress.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Rosenberg cautioned webinar viewers to be “conscious of what you’re taking in, how much news you’re watching. Set boundaries around your mental health.”

He also encouraged “giving back. Being part of a bigger community is so healing and a healthy way to cope.”

Bry agreed, saying, “You’re happier when you help other people.”

Rosenberg advised people who are working from home to “allow for a lot of creativity and communication” with their families and suggested “establishing a consistent morning routine” that mimics the normal transition from home to work. He cited research indicating that a routine leads to better clarity, focus and attention.

Fronek noted that though this may be our first pandemic, it’s not our first experience with loss and stress.

“Look at the core values you hold and the support you have in your life that helped you get through other challenging times, and have confidence that you have a lot of things within you that can help you get through this as well,” she said.

Previous webinar discussions and future ones can be viewed on Bry’s District 1 City Council Facebook page, facebook.com/BarbaraBryD1.