Published on Oct 11, 2021

Video Transcript

JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte , the chief medical officer at WebMD. COVID has changed so many aspects of our lives. It's changed the way we work, the way we live, the way we view our life. Many people are taking stock of what's important to them, how their job fits in to their life, how their health needs to be a bigger priority.

And sometimes folks aren't happy with what they're seeing. Joining me today is Dr. Phil McGraw, host of the Dr. Phil show, to help provide actionable steps to help maximize our mental health through this pandemic. Dr. Phil, thanks for joining me. It's great to see you again.

PHIL MCGRAW: Well, Dr. Whyte, thank you for having me again to talk about this really timely and important subject matter.

JOHN WHYTE: Everyone is talking about how we've been home. We've had a chance to re-evaluate what's important to us, how work fits in, how much time we spend with our kids, taking stock of our lives. Well, let's be honest, Dr. Phil, some people aren't so happy with what they're finding when they take stock of their life. So what's your advice to folks as they are depressed, are unhappy with how their life is going, and the COVID pandemic has shined a bit of a load on it?

PHIL MCGRAW: We have seen a real spike in depression and anxiety and the resultant increase in substance abuse, and even suicidal ideation. And we've seen it more with some groups than with others like, for example, unpaid adult caregivers are a real vulnerable group. Essential workers have shown even more of a spike. Racial and ethnic minorities and young adults, it's really hit certain groups more than others.

But Dr. Whyte, I have to say that I always have found that pain is a good motivator. If you really acknowledge the fact that something's not right in your life, something's not working in your life, that can be a really good motivator for you to move. I've used the example before of standing on a hot highway barefooted when we were kids. It motivated you to move. You could either run back to the grass where you left or you could run on across the highway, but you wouldn't stand there in the middle.

So if you've taken stock and you're not happy, then started to-do list. Say, OK, what is it I'm not happy with? Is it my academic achievement, my career achievement, my spiritual walk, my relationship quality and my family? Those things that you're unhappy with, put them on a priority list, and say these are things I'm going to invest in.

And if they become a to-do list, then that pain, that depression can be a good change agent in your life, and do something about it. You don't have to be a victim. It can become something that causes you to move, change, attain different levels.

JOHN WHYTE: You've always been big in our conversations about writing things down because there's some power to actually putting it down on paper. But then how do we go that next step and make sure that there's realistic expectation? So you can't necessarily change your job overnight. You can't necessarily or should you exit a relationship immediately, depending upon what's going on. One has to put it in perspective as well, don't they? How do they go about this journey and change, Dr. Phil?

PHIL MCGRAW: Well, that's a great question. And we don't have to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We really don't. We can first off, say, have I set a realistic attainable goal? You need to set a goal that you control, and it needs to be attainable. Like I'm not going to set a goal that I'm going to be in the NBA. That's not realistic. It's not going to happen at my age and my skill set.

But within what is relevant in my life, I can say I might want to change jobs or change station within my job. And I need to set a goal that is attainable. And I know it's attainable if I can identify the steps necessary to get me from where I am to where I want to go.

And Doctor, the difference between a dream and a goal is a timeline and accountability. Someday is not a day of the week. You can say I'm going to do this someday. Well, my calendar doesn't have someday in there. So you've got to say by June of next year, I'm going to have gone back and gotten this certification, which qualifies me for the next level at my job, or I'm going to have spent an hour a week with each of my teenagers, or I'm going to have read two books in the New Testament.

Set a goal that's attainable and then identify the steps necessary to get there and set up a timeline. And then you've got to have some accountability. Who's someone that you can check in with every Friday that says, hey, did you do what you need it to do this week? And if not, then you need to step it up and have some consequences.

And if you set an attainable goal with identifiable steps against a timeline, it's amazing how small changes can aggregate to big results when time goes by. Because the rest of this year is going to go by whether we're doing something about it or whether we're not. So you've got to set those goals and then hold yourself accountable.

JOHN WHYTE: But how does the Delta variant play into all of this? And I say it from the perspective, Dr. Phil, of looked like we were doing much better earlier this summer, right? So maybe you're making those goals, and you're trying to make steps. And then Delta surges in some areas of the country. So you can't do all activities that you might have wanted to do before, right?

It creates more fear, more anxiety. Now we hear again seems to be doing better. But for many people, it's this roller-coaster ride that everyone doesn't respond to well. So how do we help folks there with some actionable steps that helps protect their mental health? Where you think things are going OK, and then there's a detour because of Delta. And it's been happening a lot over the past year.

PHIL MCGRAW: Well, it's interesting, research shows it's not what happens in life that upsets people. It's violation of expectations that upset people. So if we expect a success only journey, if we expect everything to go a certain way and it doesn't, that's when we get upset. It's not if we don't have a success only journey expectation, then we don't get that upset. So what I tell people to do is let's examine our expectations.

Viruses are very unpredictable. We know that. And we're going to have to make decisions about how we live. And I hate that this has become a political issue, but we have to rely on the science. And if we going in, and we just say, look, I'm going to make some plans here. And I know that we're going to have this virus. It's going to wax and wane, and so we may have a few setbacks. We may have some delays, but I'm expecting that.

I know that because I know viruses are unpredictable. And I know that with season change, it may affect things. I know that some people want to get vaccinated, some people don't. So everybody's not pulling in the same direction. So things may not be just lockstep predictable. But as long as I know that and I expect that there are going to be some setbacks, then when it happens, I go, OK, I expected this. I knew this was going to come. Then I roll with it.

It's only when something happens that I wasn't prepared for mentally that I tend to have anxiety or even panic. So we have to adjust our expectations. So we don't get surprised or ambushed by something that was really very predictable if we had just not been naive in setting our expectation.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, let's switch it a little bit to kids and adolescents, because we're talking about expectations. We're talking in some ways about controlling what we can control. Adolescents and kids can't always control their environment, don't have control over all aspects of their life. We often talk about how kids are resilient. And many are. But let's be practical. Some aren't. How is the COVID pandemic impacting kids?

PHIL MCGRAW: Sadly, unfortunately, I think it's impacting children developmentally, mentally, emotionally, and academically quite a bit. And it varies, as you say. Some have sailed through this. I think the younger children, it's affected academically quite a bit. I think some of the older children socially in terms of their social development and not being able to interact. It's created some developmental delays there.

We have to remember that kids can have problems, but they lack the ability to really articulate those problems. So as parents, we have to really pay attention and make sure that we're watching for those warning signs with those children. And be sure that we pick up on those, so we can go to them and say, hey, listen, are you having trouble here? How are you doing? What is it?

And don't be approaching them with shoulds and must. Oh, you should be fine with that or you must do this. But listen and give them the opportunity to vent and have a place to talk about these things because we've got to meet the children where they are and not expect them to meet us where we are. And that means asking questions and listening, listening, listening to what they have to say.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's go over some of those warning signs because it can present differently in children than it would be in adults.

PHIL MCGRAW: I think first, we have to look at those things that are most observable. And first, you're going to see irritability, anger, really short-fused. You may have a child that's maybe a little sullen or a little combative, but you have to look at it against their baseline. And so watch for changes with that. See if they're more withdrawn, less interested in things that they ordinarily would be interested in.

And I would watch really close for changes in their sleep patterns. That's a real big issue because I think having that restorative sleep is so important for their brain health. And then everything dominoes down from that. And it goes back to one of my main rules for healthy living, and that is never worry alone. Reach out and ask the questions.

And by the way, I say to adults as well, if somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, you seem a little off, is something bothering you? Don't just, oh, no, I'm fine. Listen, listen to what they're saying. They may be seeing something in you that is change worthy or you may need an audience. So somebody taps you on the shoulder, don't just tell them, oh, no, I'm fine. Listen and see whether or not they're actually seeing something that maybe needs your attention.

JOHN WHYTE: I want to ask you about that, Dr. Phil. So in many ways, people have said, COVID has changed how we look at mental health and how we have to address it. And if we ask people how are you, let's be honest, a lot of times, we don't want to hear a long answer, right? So how do we make people comfortable with that? Do we do we not ask that question because we don't want to know the answer?

Or to your point, some people feel like people aren't being genuine when they're saying how are you. It's almost a hello greeting. And if you start to talk about what's going on, people are going to look at you differently. So how do you get over that hump of finding that person that you can share the anxiety that you're having and share your depression with?

PHIL MCGRAW: I think you get what you give. If you're passing somebody on the street, and you say, hey, how's it going? If you use contractions and you never break stride, you're sending a signal I'm not really interested. That's just saying hello.

But if somebody stops and makes eye contact, and they ask you in earnest, how are you doing? That's different than how's it going. You have to really listen to what somebody's saying. And then you can test the waters by floating something out there that says, you know what? It's been a little tough to tell you the truth.

And if they reciprocate by saying, oh, man, I hear you, or well, tell me about that, then you know that somebody is wanting to reciprocate in more than a superficial level. But I don't think we stop asking because I think when you do ask somebody in earnest, how are you doing, instead of hey, how's it going, that's a way of letting people know we do care. We are interested.

And don't you think there's a difference in the way you say it, how's it going versus how are you? And I think we need to listen for that inflection and see if somebody is really interested or are they just saying a dismissive hello.

JOHN WHYTE: When it comes to mental health issues, what are we going to be talking about six months from now? Are we going to be talking about it's an unmet pandemic? Are we going to talk about the rates of suicide and substance abuse disorders? Where do you think we'll be, Dr. Phil, six months from now?

PHIL MCGRAW: I think we are going to be talking about depression and anxiety. And I think it's going to be reactive in nature because I think some of the fallout from the prolonged quarantine, some of the economic losses, so many of the mom-and-pop businesses that were just lost forever, worked on for 30 or 40 years with narrow margins that will never come back, I think a lot of those people are going to really be faced with the harsh reality of their life's work being kind of swept away and having to start over in their 40s or 50s.

Some of them with a new career, maybe a new complete skill set that they're having to learn, maybe entry level. I think a lot of people are going to be very, very frustrated. And I think that's going to result in some depression and anxiety that hasn't really landed completely yet. I think we're seeing some depression and anxiety now that's come from the loneliness and separateness.

And I think as some of these other things land, when rent moratoriums and some of those things go away and the economic impact hits, I think we're going to see a second wave of this six months and a year from now that's going to be very difficult for people to contend with. And I think we're going to have to be prepared to help those people.

JOHN WHYTE: And I hope we can continue our conversation over the next few months and continuing to give people actionable items that they can do to assess their mental health, to help improve their mental health, as well as to know when they should seek a professional to help them through what can be very difficult periods. Dr. Phil, I want to thank you again for taking the time.

PHIL MCGRAW: Dr. Whyte, thank you so much. I look forward to continuing this dialogue. I think it's very important.