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How COVID-19 Is Affecting Your Mental Health, According to a Clinical Psychology Professor

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Photo by Annie Leibovitz; courtesy Dr. Andrew Solomon

We sit down with National Book Award Winner and TED Talk speaker Dr. Andrew Solomon ahead of his Bedford Playhouse visit on July 12.

In case you’ve missed the industry shutdowns, school closures, social isolation, and round-the-block lines to get into the grocery store for the last five months, things have been pretty stressful lately.

Those who live with anxiety and depression are encountering heightened external stressors, while many who have never experienced symptoms are suddenly finding themselves inundated by risk and uncertainty. The New York State Department of Health has created official guidelines for managing stress and anxiety within its official COVID-19 guide, even creating a dedicated emotional support hotline at 1-844-863-9314.

Continuing its virtual speaker series, National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Dr. Andrew Solomon will join viewers for a digital Q&A at The Bedford Playhouse this Sunday, July 12 at 8 p.m. Solomon, a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, gained widespread success for his 2001 memoir The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and its 2012 follow-up Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (which was also turned into documentary of the same name), and his series of popular TED Talks. Recently, Solomon has written prominently for several publications and appeared as an expert to discuss the effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Americans’ mental health.

Dr. Solomon was kind enough to Zoom in from his Rhinebeck home to give us a preview of the planned discussion and provide some guidance on how we can adapt and support our emotional and mental wellbeing.

 

The Playhouse is no stranger to having authors, filmmakers, and guest lecturers, but how does being all-of-the-above change the way you approach an event like this?

Well, I’ll certainly talk about the book and the film, and talk about the book that I’m working on, but I somehow stumbled into the topic of COVID and mental health. I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, then I wrote an op-ed for The Guardian, then I was on Democracy Now on TV and I did a piece with The Intercept with Glenn Greenwald, so I somehow around the beginning of the epidemic did a lot on that and it’s obviously on people’s minds now.

I hope to combine some discussion of my work and the subjects that have interested me in the past with some attempt to respond to the moment that we’re in and talk about the ways in which people are struggling, and talk about strategies that may help people through and make people feel heard, really. I think a lot of people are feeling terrible isolation in the sense that whatever they’re struggling with is unacknowledged.

 

Your work in psychology — particularly depression — seems especially relevant right now. What kinds of added stress may people not even know they’re dealing with?

 I think there are two stresses — I mean there are many stresses but there are two in an essential category. One is the stresses associated with the disease itself: the loss of people you love and care about, the awareness that you yourself might get sick, the loss for many people of jobs, and all of those struggles that are directly related to the disease and the confusion, which I think in some ways is the hardest — not knowing when or how it’s going to change.

The wisdom on that seems to be rearranged every other day. If we could say to everyone, “Okay, it’s going to take until January, but then it’s all going to be fine,” I think people could deal with that. When can we open? What’s going to be safe? What’s going to be appealing to people? The confusion is terrible.

On the other hand, there’s the experience of isolation, and I think the relish with which people have abandoned their isolation for wild sociability — when it’s pretty clear that’s a misguided thing to do — is evidence of how much people have struggled with the isolation. People are truly by themselves – the sense of being truly cut off from the rest of humanity, who have seen no one but whoever’s in line at the grocery store for the last four months. On the other hand, you have the people who are locked in with their families 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While for some people that’s wonderful and has engendered more closeness than they’ve had before, some people are going slightly crazy from overexposure to a small group of people and not having any other outlet or means of escape.

It’s helpful that we can have things like Zoom conversations, but it’s different qualitatively than what it would be if we were meeting in 3D in real life and had a conversation face to face. I think a lot of people are struggling with the isolation mightily.

 

Are you seeing other examples of people breaking quarantine or making unhealthy choices as a result of these pressures?

 I just went on a trip to Utah, which was sort of a big decision: It’s for an article and it’s something that’ll eventually be in my book and it’s something I really wanted to work on — I can’t just not do my work for an indefinite period of time — and Utah had at that point had under 150 deaths in the state, so the rate was very low.

But I went with this sort of sense of terror about what I was entering into. I arranged to stay with people so I wouldn’t be in hotels and I wore masks the whole time, of course, and gloves pretty much the whole time. All of these people seemed to have a kind of political sense that in the masks I was somehow disagreeing with the culture they were part of. I can understand how many, many, many subjects about which I have strong points of view have become political, but wearing a mask when there’s actually a deadly virus on the loose? I just don’t understand how that can be a political question.

I don’t understand how it’s possible to think that bravado is going to get you anywhere with a virus. Possibly in a time of war, bravado can get you a long way, though it can also be foolish and reckless, but with a virus bravado is … irrelevant.

Photo by Marilyn Clark; courtesy Dr. Andrew Solomon

What are a few things people can do to stay mentally and emotionally healthy as the pandemic continues and get through just … existence?

(Laughing) Well there’s a small assignment. I would say that there are essentially four responses that people are having to the COVID pandemic.

Some people have very robust mental health and are really essentially fine — not that they aren’t distressed by it, but they’re managing perfectly okay.

Many people are experiencing signs of anxiety that are requiring what I would essentially call “psychiatric first aid.” They need to regularize their sleep, they need to regularize their eating, they need to define a bubble of people they can see in real life or at least a group of people with whom they’re in regular contact, they need to put structure into lives, which for many of them existed in going to an office or school. They have to do all of those things that are essentially acts of self-regulation.

Then there’s the group of people who’ve never had any kind of psychiatric illness or challenge before, who are suddenly experiencing symptoms of real, medical psychiatric anxiety and depression. Those people need to do all the things I just listed, but additionally it’s probably appropriate for them to consult with a therapist and possibly to consider taking medication on at least a temporary basis with the understanding that this is a serious condition and that there’s no shame in having escalated into a clinical condition in the face of all these stresses. One statistic that came out recently is that almost a third of Americans are now experiencing symptoms of clinical anxiety and depression. That’s a lot of people, and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed or weak for having these conditions when they’re affecting that huge number of people, and you should do whatever it takes to get through. Depression and anxiety are a crippling problem but also a very treatable problem for most people, and people should avail themselves of treatment.

And then there’s the category of people who already had clinical depression and anxiety and who now have what’s sometimes called a “double depression,” in which you have both an underlying dysthymia and now layered on top of it a sense of acute crisis and terror about what’s going on. Those people really need to take their treatment very seriously and they also need to consider, given these enormous stresses, maybe more than the other people do whether they can have interactions with other people that will be restorative to them. The additional layer of depression can really be crippling and paralyzing, and it helps if you can have people really interact with, at least some of the time.

In some ways this isolation has been really difficult; in some ways it’s been really great. I’ve become closer with my children, I’m getting a lot of work done, and then I was out there [in Utah] and I thought, “Oh! Other people are interesting and interacting with other people is a rewarding experience.” I’d missed it and now doing it again I realized how acutely I’d missed it. While I was there, I missed being at home and I missed the people at home and I was glad to come home when I did, but it did reawaken me. I thought, “Oh, right, I used to go out and meet people and see them and have these interactions and eat things.” It was just a different life and I had missed it more than I knew.

 

You mentioned your latest book. Can you tell us a little more about that?

The book I’m working on is about expanding ideas of family: about divorce and stepfamilies, about interracial families, about adoption and foster care, single parenthood, assisted reproduction, gay families, multi-parent families, paid childcare, and the so-called “child-free family.” It’s all of those things kind of rolled into one in a volume that I think is going to be sort of an obese literary undertaking because there are so many different pieces to it.

It’s been very interesting thinking in this COVID period … I think the ways in which my gay family is defined as a gay family and the ways in which the multi-parent family together is defined as a multi-parent family exist in their difference, which is part of what the book is about: While we all should be equal we are not all identical; we’re not necessarily equivalent even if we’re equal. I feel like a lot of that exists within a public gaze and in the privacy of having no interaction with anyone else, the fact that we’re a gay family, the fact that we’re a multi-parent family seems to be almost irrelevant. I know these things are true and they are engaged with and part of the dynamics that exist among us, but I also feel like some of the difference is erased and to some extent we’ll become families with just our own particular dynamics within that family.

The book is about this much broader idea of the expanding notion of “family” and the need for a better vocabulary to talk about expanding ideas of family. I think what’ll be the conclusion to the book is what I’ve been doing a lot of writing on just recently: understanding what the dynamics are simply of being a family.

 

Dr. Andrew Solomon’s live session at The Bedford Playhouse website will be held on Sunday, July 12 at 8 p.m. The cost is $5. You can read more at andrewsolomon.com.

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