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DoD experts address COVID-19 effects on mental health

Image of soldier wearing a mask As the country begins to reopen and facial coverings become part of the “new normal,” many beneficiaries feel heightened anxiety and mental distress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, DoD psychological health experts offer tools and advice for managing those feelings. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Conrad)

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how people live, interact, and cope with new stressors. However, military psychological health experts emphasize making small changes to address problems early can have a big impact.

“Aside from worrying about the contracting the virus, we worry about the many ways it impacts our lives and for how long,” said Dr. Holly O'Reilly, clinical psychologist at the Defense Health Agency’s Psychological Health Center of Excellence. “Taking small steps to address problems early on can make a big difference, especially during the current pandemic.”

O’Reilly and three other Department of Defense experts on psychological health discussed the mental health effects of COVID-19 and tools to address them during a media panel May 27 as part of May’s national Mental Health Awareness Month observance. Each year, the Military Health System joins the nation to raise awareness of psychological health concerns. This year’s MHS theme of “Need a Little Help” is especially important, because “sometimes a little bit of help is all we need to improve our mental health and stay mission ready,” O’Reilly said.

O’Reilly says that one of those small steps is to “bright side” anxieties during the pandemic. “Instead of catastrophizing and imagining that this will be terrible forever, take a step back and think about how you will successfully navigate this situation, even though it's difficult,” she said.

For example, bright siding can help health care workers with the growing anxiety they may feel due to the ambiguity of the novel coronavirus and limited medical knowledge of its impacts. Dr. Stephen Cozza, associate director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University for Health Sciences, encouraged senior clinicians and medical leaders to frame expectations for their workers and help them understand the limits of what they can do in the challenging environment that COVID-19 presents.

This also extends to families of health care workers. “Many of the families of health care workers are both faced by long and extended absences of their loved ones who are working under varying circumstances and putting themselves at risk by being at close exposure to the virus,” Cozza said. “That can also lead to concerns for the health and safety of the health care providers as well as…the family members.”

Army Col. (Dr.) David Benedek, chief of Psychiatry at USU, encourages everyone to engage in continuing self-care habits to promote resilience and a more healthy response to the challenges their confronting. These include getting good sleep, maintaining good nutritional and hydration habits, and remaining devoted to appropriate exercise.

“The things that we consider self-care are really important, not just for hospital workers and healthcare workers and other front liners, but all of our society … things that we can do to promote our general physical health and also promote our mental health,” Benedek said. His includes staying socially connected through physical distancing and staying in touch with loved ones. “Families should talk honestly about fears and worries, but also share in positive family experiences,” he said.

While looking at things from the bright side is a start to addressing mental health issues, seeking care from a mental health professional is always encouraged for anyone who feels that they need a little bit of help. Benedek noted a national increase in patients making appointments for mental and physical health, which decreased significantly in the early stages of the pandemic. He attributed that increase to changes in the worries that people are having, and also to the increase in telehealth or virtual health services for mental health care.

“One can make a phone call and get a tele-mental-health appointment and not have to worry about coming into a higher risk environment,” Benedek said, “and people are starting to take advantage of that. So I think we will see increased utilization in the weeks and months ahead.”

Although May offers opportunities to emphasize and reinforce resources and programs, mental health is a year-round focus with the DoD, O’Reilly said. “We constantly advance our research and analysis to improve prevention and treatment for the beneficiaries of the Military Health System.”

The MHS offers a number of mental health tools and programs to help patients, service members, and health care providers address their mental health concerns. From free mobile applications to expansions in telehealth capabilities, access to mental health care is always a priority for MHS.

Under one program, the Real Warriors Campaign, Dr. Nicholas Polizzi, Ph.D., with the Psychological Health Center of Excellence, leverages social media and other forms of multimedia to provide mental health materials to patients no matter where they are. The Real Warriors Campaign encourages the military community to reach out for help dealing with stress and anxiety.

“If you're looking for evidence-based, self-guided interventions that one can do, be they be a front-line worker, a medical professional, or family member, I would encourage folks to check out the Real Warriors Campaign,” Polizzi said. “Real Warriors is cellphone compatible and has tons of information in a variety of formats for people to digest on their own and learn more if they're dipping their toe into the self-care psychological health world.”

The long-lasting mental effects of the pandemic, like heightened anxiety and potential post-traumatic stress disorder, remains uncertain, according to the experts. Returning to the workplace can add another layer to both conditions. However, all of the experts agree that measures can be taken to promote resilience and a healthy response to the challenges of COVID-19.

Mental health is essential not only to mission success, but to quality of life. The Military Health System will continue to prioritize mental health and combat threats to mental health like the COVID-19 pandemic. For more mental health resources, visit the MHS website.

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