Published on May 14, 2020

  • An unprecedented mental health crisis is on the horizon, due to COVID-related fear, stress, isolation and economic uncertainty.
  • Everyone living through this pandemic needs support or strategies to strengthen their mindset, learn how to decatastrophize, and structure their day.
  • The rate of psychological symptoms after previous pandemics and disasters has been quite high, and experts anticipate a similar health impact with the coronavirus.
  • If you're feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious and need help, start with your primary care doctor or local mental health hotline.

Video Transcript


JOHN WHYTE: We're in the midst of an epidemic, a mental health epidemic. Coronavirus has increased anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I sat down a little while ago with Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman and Dr. Laurel Mayer from Columbia University, who provide us their insights as well as tips.

Dr. Lieberman, why is the coronavirus causing this mental health epidemic?

JEFFREY LIEBERMAN: John, you're absolutely right. Uh, not everybody quite appreciates that yet. But the corona pandemic, which is largely an infectious disease that's a contagion that threatens many people's safety and lives, is the focus now. But this next shoe to drop in the aftermath of the contagion is going to be psychiatric in nature. And that's going to be a consequence of the stress that is placed on people as a result of the contagion, the fear of getting infected, the social isolation, the disruption to their lives, and also because of the massive pressure that it's placing on health care providers and even non-health care provider essential workers, like for transportation or for food and markets.

But beyond the effects of the virus itself, there is going to be such economic and social disruption in the aftermath that is going to be enduring that this is going to take a huge toll on the pop-- mental health of the population. And if we don't want to be caught unawares, like we were with the virus, we need to start thinking about that and taking action now.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure. And we've been talking about these deaths of despair. Dr. Mayer, how prevalent do you think that's going to be, these suicides and other manifestations of despair?

LAUREL MAYER: So I think we know from other pandemics, from other natural disasters, from other traumas that the rates of psychological symptoms after this is going to be quite high. As many as 50% of us may experience depression, may struggle with some post-traumatic stress symptoms, will struggle with anxiety. And while most of us may actually do well, all of us will need something.

I mean, I see sort of mental health on a spectrum, where there's health and well-being on one end, and there's illness on the other. So for most of us, we'll need support. We'll need some resiliency building. We'll need some coping strategies to help us get through. And some will need more formal treatment because of issues like depression, like issues of substance use, which we know will also increase after disasters as we try to find ways to cope, some of which become healthier and some of which leave us in a little bit different of a situation.

JOHN WHYTE: Dr. Lieberman, what are you seeing in terms of patients that perhaps have symptoms of PTSD but don't recognize it as PTSD, or caregivers don't recognize their symptoms or this manifestation relating to COVID, because they're not thinking about that?

JEFFREY LIEBERMAN: This is affecting everybody. But it affects people differentially depending on how one, close they are to the trauma of the infection, meaning if you're working at an ICU, you're in ground zero. Uh, did you lose a loved one who died? Uh, are you going to lose your job as a result of this? But two, what is your pre-existing psychiatric history? And do you have any constitutional and genetic vulnerability?

So what we're seeing is that the worried well, so to speak, are freaked. And they need exactly what Laurel was describing in terms of mental health first aid to enable them to kind of frame and understand this and then mobilize their internal strength for resilience.

JOHN WHYTE: OK. JEFFREY LIEBERMAN: But people that have--

JOHN WHYTE: And do they usually do OK? Does the worried well usually do OK?

JEFFREY LIEBERMAN: If they're-- if they get the guidance and support that they need. But the only way they can do that is if they-- they are at-- they're able to access virtual means of communication-- you know, videos that have been posted on websites--


JEFFREY LIEBERMAN: --guidance on how to decatastrophize and how to utilize your time and structure your day. But the communication is necessary to do that. So there needs to be a public mental health initiative.

But the people that have pre-existing conditions, particularly anxiety, mood, substance abuse, obsessional or phobic disorders, they're going to have an exacerbation of symptoms. And here's where virtual or telemedicine has finally been grasped and utilized to its full extent. So if you have a doctor or a therapist, and you're having difficulty, you should feel free to reach out to them. You're not bothering them.


JEFFREY LIEBERMAN: And if they don't take your call, my advice is, get a new doctor or therapist.

JOHN WHYTE: Right, mm-hmm. Dr. Mayer, I wanted to bring up that point that, you know, a lot of folks, you know, we want to look at it and say that we can manage it. But for other people, they're drawn to the negative. And when we have social media, we have the news media that-- let's be fair-- portrays a lot of doom and gloom, some of the negative stories, how do they cope with that? How do they break that attraction to the negative?

LAUREL MAYER: You know what. I think one of the things that we've learned in this virus from it being so new is that it's sort of leveled the playing field. And for some of us who thought, I don't need help, I can do everything on my own, that attitude doesn't really fly in the current situation. We all need help.

We need to figure out our new treatments. We need to figure out how this presents. We need to do work to get a vaccine. We need to ask our friends for help. And we need to know whether what we're experiencing is normal under the current conditions or whether there's something more going on. And it's really critical that people reach out for help at this time, again, because as a community, we can move through this and survive this. And it's going to require everyone pitching in.

And help comes in so many different forms now, whether it's the food being brought to the hospitals for the first-- for the frontline workers, whether it's someone being able to watch out for somebody else's kids while-- um, uh, while they go to work, or whatever it is, and the ways in which we can be connected, and help each other, and appreciate. Gratitude also goes a long way, um, towards helping us stay positive to help get us through this, and to help turn the tide to look towards the future.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, I wanted to ask both of you-- what tips would you give people or caregivers, um, to recognize when someone needs help? That's not always that easy for some folks. They think they're doing OK. Or they think everyone else is in the same place. So what tips would you give folks?

LAUREL MAYER: I think if you have the question, do I need help, reach out. Because just having that question says maybe you do. So ask.

JEFFREY LIEBERMAN: Well, I-- I think that everybody benefits from it. When you say "needs help," you know, we're running a marathon. And the problem is is that we can't pace ourselves because we don't know if the marathon's gonna be a half marathon, or a full marathon, or, uh, uh, you know, an Ironman marathon.

And everybody, as Laurel said, needs help. To be COVID-safe, we have to be together safe because you're-- we're not going to be able to do it alone because everything is interdependent. It is a great leveling effect in that sense.

So in terms of what to look for, you don't even have to wait for the signs of stress. You know that you're going to wear down in some ways, some people worse than others, eventually. So it behooves somebody--

Just like, you know, when you move to a new town, you don't wait to get sick to get a doctor. You should get a doctor immediately so that when you get sick, you already have a relationship. This is going to be something which is going to test everybody.

And it's the things that you need to look for that show that there's symptoms of psychopathology that are warning signs that people are experiencing more than they can handle. And it may occur in individuals that don't have pre-existing disorders or vulnerabilities to those disorders, just as simply as they're becoming anxious, worried, can't concentrate, can't sleep, are irritable. Or it may take the form of very specific symptoms that are ultimately going to reach the threshold of DSM diagnosis for depression, for social anxiety, for agoraphobia, for using substances and access to self-medicate, becoming obsessionally germophobic, uh, things like that.

JOHN WHYTE: So where should people go for help?

JEFFREY LIEBERMAN: Well, people should be able to access mental health through the health care system that's available. So if you have a primary care doctor, you can start with that person, say, lookit, I really need-- to think-- I see a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Is there somebody you can refer-- refer me to?

In the absence of that, you look on the website of the local, particularly academic medical centers. And they should have means to call a hotline to first get screened and then referred. You should look online for mental health guidance, which is now proliferating in terms of the amount of things for both stress and trauma, but also grieving and loss.

Um, and uh, then, even in the absence of that, if you aren't able to make contact because for whatever reasons, um, reach out to friends and communicate with friends because that ability to, you know, connect with individuals, particularly those that are able to be supportive to you, can be helpful in and of itself.

But as Laurel said, uh, don't wait. Don't hesitate. Err on the side of reaching out rather than waiting till you think it gets so bad I can't-- I have to reach out.

JOHN WHYTE: That's good advice. I want to thank you both for joining us.

LAUREL MAYER: Thank you, John. Pleasure to be here.

JEFFREY LIEBERMAN: Thanks, John. Keep up the good work.