BOSTON (CBS) - Researchers studying the pandemic's effect on mental health are concerned that the impacts could linger far into the future. "The second wave of the pandemic is a mental health pandemic," explains Brigham and Women's Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Nomi Levy-Carrick.
Social isolation over the past 15 months has exacerbated mental illness for people who were already vulnerable. Between the fear of getting sick, the socio-economic toll of the pandemic, months of remote schooling and the inability to rely on traditional coping mechanisms, even people who never paid much attention to their mental health are feeling the stress.
Dr. Levy-Carrick says that it is critically important to recognize the difference between a normal range of emotions and debilitating anxiety or depression. "Are you anxious for a while and then it goes away? Or are you so anxious that you're not leaving the house? Is your mood so low that you're having a hard time looking forward to the future? Are there thoughts of self-harm? When you are starting to feel that level of helplessness it's crucial not to worry alone."
Dr. Levy-Carrick will share her insights on mental health at Brigham and Women's Hospital's annual Women's Health Luncheon on Friday, May 7. The event raises money for the Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women's Health.
The keynote speaker is actress, author and mental health advocate Mariel Hemingway. "There are simple techniques that can help you get on top of your life so that your life is not living you. You are living your life," Hemingway told WBZ's Lisa Hughes from her home in California. "My lifestyle and the way I live my life everyday…has guided me and saved me from life of anxiety and depression and other things that we all deal with. But especially in the past year."
Hemingway says she has treated the pandemic as a time of incubation. With a regular focus on eating well, exercising, spending time in nature and breathing, she says she simply made those habits a bigger part of her life. While the pandemic has presented stressors, Hemingway says she tried to focus on what she could still do as opposed to what was missing. "I don't go to bars. I don't go to things that are cramped. I do go to the market. That was my big adventure—just to go to the market because I could. Sometimes I would sit in the parking lot eating and that was a picnic," Hemingway laughed. "Parking lot picnics."
Hemingway embarked on her mental health journey with the fear that, like so many of her family members, she would suffer mental illness. "I wasn't always happy and joyous and at peace. I didn't always sleep well," she explains with gratitude that—at almost 60 years old—she feels vibrant and healthy. "I spent a great deal of the first part of my life being afraid that my family legacy of mental health problems was like a plague or a virus that, at some point, I was going to get. The way people felt about COVID? That's how I felt for 40 years. I thought, I'd better take control of my life."
In the past year, Hemingway has launched a new foundation for mental health awareness and the prevention of suicide. She calls it Hearts Unknown and says that she is now developing an app that will direct people to mental health services in their area.
Those services will almost surely be in high demand. Dr. Levy-Carrick says one valuable transformation in health care during the pandemic has been the emergence of telehealth. At a time when so many people need to talk with a therapist, offering sessions that enabled patients to communicate from the safety of their homes was hugely helpful. She says, going forward, offering more group therapy may also be part of the solution.
In the meantime, she says, it's important to remember that emerging from the pandemic comes with its own stressors and that we are all doing our best to adapt. "Maybe just being a little more gentle on ourselves. We're not going to figure this out in a week."
For tickets to the Women's Health Luncheon to benefit the Mary Horrigon Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology, go to womenshealthluncheon.org.
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