A panel of mental health experts at the opening session of Psych Congress Elevate emphasized the importance of looking beyond the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and instead to the opportunities it presents now and the positive change it could bring in the future.
Psych Congress Steering Committee member Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC, said that while it feels premature to discuss post-traumatic growth, the idea can be used as a North Star to guide people through the uncertainty of rest of the pandemic.
“We use hope. We use post-traumatic growth as a place to repoint our ship towards, knowing that we’re going to drift,” Penn said. “Even though we know we’re not there yet, we’re just continuing to orient in that direction.”
Fellow Psych Congress Steering Committee member Rakesh Jain, MD, MPH, who led the discussion among five members of the committee, agreed.
“It’s good to have goals. It’s good to have a direction, and post-traumatic growth is a direction to aim towards. If it takes us a month or 10 years, so be it. Let’s at least move towards it,” he said.
Saundra Jain, MA, PsyD, LPC, said clinicians should work to instill a sense of hope and connection in their patients.
“Our patients must know that we believe in them and in their capacity to change. If we can make that connection, I believe anything is possible,” Dr. Jain said. “Even if it’s the North Star, months down the road, years down the road, with that sense of the hope as the foundation, we can ride the wave, we will get there.”
Reframing Our Viewpoint
Edward Kaftarian, MD, a cochair of Elevate, said the pandemic presents a tremendous opportunity to improve our society, technology, and social fabric—and we are missing out if we don’t look for those opportunities.
“This is a lot for anybody to handle…this is unlike any time in world history,” Dr. Kaftarian said. “We have to reframe and from our vulnerabilities find new opportunities.”
He also feels it is important to reframe thoughts about the pandemic and other current events to keep them from leading to anxiety, anger, and depression. A sense of not being in control leads to such emotional reactions, he pointed out.
Elevate cochair Steven Chan, MD, MBA, hopes the pandemic will permanently change how technology is used in society.
“We had so many changes in March—telehealth, prescribing, the ability to see people remotely,” he said. “Technology has become our PPE. Ensuring that it stays with us past the pandemic is absolutely important. Advocating for these changes, advocating for reforms that will benefit society—absolutely important.”
A Personal Perspective
The opening session of the 3-day virtual conference also included an interview with Peng Pang, MD, MSc, MBA, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in New York City who contracted the virus early in the outbreak in the city, then spread it to her husband and 2 children. Dr. Pang is Associate Program Director and Residency Training Director, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, and Mental Health Assistant Professor at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, Hofstra University, New York City.
Dr. Pang spoke about the personal and professional struggles she faced, both during her weeks of illness and subsequent time working with individuals infected with the virus and their families who were not permitted to see them. She and her colleagues were constantly looking at statistics about the outbreak, wondering when the numbers would come down, when the outbreak would end.
She said she now better understands how her patients who are suffering with depression feel, and why they may not follow treatment recommendations.
“It’s not about they don’t want or are resistant to treatment. It’s about they can’t,” she said.
She found encouragement from colleagues who were facing the same challenges at work.
“The key point is that you have to keep on moving. Regardless of what your mental state [is] you just keep on working … and then gradually you’re moving out,” she said. “I think this is definitely a kind of in-person experience that I can share with my patients as well.”
Since social distancing began, Dr. Pang said she has been seeing an increase in substance use and Emergency Room visits and inpatient admissions from people in crisis.
Clinicians now need to anticipate the difficulties that people will be facing as the pandemic wears on, she said, and focus on prevention efforts and innovative ways to reach them. Patients, including children, should be encouraged to maintain routines, stay active, and remain connected with others, she said.
Particularly in disadvantaged areas, Dr. Pang noted, clinicians should remember that not everyone has a phone or Internet connection to stay in touch with them or with others.
“We have to be mindful that a lot of patients do not have these tools to stay connected, to stay on treatment. That’s why we have to be innovative and find ways to connect with other professionals in the community, in the field, especially mobile teams to visit patients, connect with these patients, and help them avoid crisis and stay in treatment,” she said.
“Standing Tall: Important Lessons Learned by Psychiatry During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Featuring an Interview with Dr. Peng Pang.” Presented at Psych Congress Elevate: Virtual; July 25, 2020.