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Weathering the mental health strains of a global pandemic

More than a third of U.S. adults have had symptoms of anxiety and depression during the global pandemic, so Stanford experts are figuring out how to help.

To date, more than 11 million Americans have contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Although that figure is staggering, it turns out there is an even more widespread impact of the global pandemic: Harm to individuals' mental health.

A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that more than half of American adults reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression between May and July, up from about 1 in 10 people reporting such symptoms in similar polling in early 2019.

As I describe in a recent feature story for Stanford Medicine magazine, Stanford psychiatrists are working to bolster mental health during the unprecedented global crisis.

Helping the most vulnerable

People with prior mental health struggles are among the most vulnerable right now. Making sure they have resources for getting help is a priority for Stanford's Victor Carrion, MD, an expert in early-life stress. He is leading a program to equip first-line mental health workers and professionals with effective response tools, the story explains.

In September, Carrion began rolling out a program across California to teach psychological first aid and skills for psychological recovery to help people in crisis. Tailored to address pandemic-related stressors, the training is intended for psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, people who answer calls to crisis hotlines and anyone interacting with clients, including receptionists and clinic managers at county behavioral health clinics.

"The staff are being equipped to do a basic stress and resilience intervention so they can treat their clients and communities," Carrion told me for the story.

Finding an internal resilience

Though the pandemic is stressful for most people, many individuals are finding reserves of resilience, a Stanford PTSD expert told me:

"I've been pleasantly surprised by how resourceful people have been," said Shaili Jain, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "I've had conversations with people who I was concerned about, but they are doing well."

To handle the ongoing stress, Carrion and Jain recommend that everyone make time to use healthy coping strategies, such as exercise, spending time in nature, meditating or praying, or chatting on the phone with a supportive friend.

And for kids and teens, small opportunities to make fun choices can help preserve a sense of agency in the face of an uncontrollable situation, Carrion added. Even having a chance to pick a new flavor of ice cream at the grocery store can help.

Illustration by Gérard DuBois

Read more from Stanford Medicine magazine's special report on COVID-19 here.

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