Why are many of my patients doing better during the pandemic?


The COVID-19 pandemic has, like it or not, made experimental labs rats out of us all.

Since the U.S. “shutdown” began in March, we have all had to adjust to a situation in which we are home more, stuck seeing less of our friends, exercising less, often eating and drinking more, or using recreational substances more – in part because of the severe stress. We have been ripped away from many of the social “anchors” of our weeks; that is, the spiritual, social and physical, and tactile supports that sustain and motivate us in our lives.

And yet, many of us, of all ages, stripes, and colors are thriving. Why is that so? Without necessarily being fully fledged, card carrying misanthropes, many of us are actually not bereft when forced to spend some alone time.

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We may be self-starters and have hobbies and interests that we may have neglected but can fall back on with alacrity. Activities such as gardening, cooking, reading, working at our day jobs, listening to music, streaming TV, and so on are now more available to us.

The pandemic has produced unforeseen side effects, such as decreased pollution, less seismic “noise” on our planet, increasingly bold activity by wild life, and we can actually hear bird songs in our yards. Likewise, the social isolation has enabled us to focus more on “back burner” projects and to motivate us toward accessing and achieving other internally driven goals.

Also, to many, it has provided a surprising and unexpected privilege to meaningfully connect while in close quarters with spouses, children, and other loved ones, which has improved and cemented relationships under some level of duress, perhaps.

Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, in addition to the above reasons, many of our patients with chronic mental illness may be functioning reasonably well, too, even better than their “walking wounded” loved ones and peers. They may be reaping the rewards of many years of consistent biopsychosocial support in strong mental health programs.

But another reason might be the lowered expectations. As one stable patient with schizophrenia said, “No one is hassling me now; no one is aggravating me to go to this group or that, to leave the house to volunteer, to get a job. I’m just so much more relaxed; I’ve got this.” And certainly the Freudian “schadenfreude” defense has something to do with this as well. Seeing family members lose their jobs, become financially vulnerable, being unable to or stymied from demonstrating mastery in many different situations and skill sets elicit the empathy and galvanizes the support of well-managed patients with mental illness – already used to existential threats – for their generally higher functioning loved ones.

As one of my struggling patients said, “Welcome to my world!” Years of hardship, lack of intimate relationships because of social anxiety, and psychotic level obsessive-compulsive disorder have trained, indeed, inured her to the daily pain, constriction, and misery of social isolation. Her life, despite working full time, has remained static, while younger siblings have married, started a family, moved away. She is still living at home with her elderly parents. They now worry about catching COVID-19, while she is now their protector with roles reversed, doing their shopping, and providing moral support and encouragement for the whole family.

Dr. Ian Tofler

Dr. Ian R. Tofler

Many of us have lost jobs, been furloughed, seen our dreams disappear, and are unable to pay rent or mortgages. Those with chronic mental illness, especially those living in states with a strong social safety net, are continuing to receive their Social Security disability checks, and maintain their in-home health and family supports. They also have continued their adherence with the mental health system structure by continuing with telemedicine therapy and regular medications or monthly intramuscular shots. Their families are especially cognizant of the need for ongoing structure and stability, which is now easier to provide. And what of those patients who endured severe anxiety and panic disorders in their prepandemic states? It is true that many do require higher doses of their anxiolytics, especially benzodiazepines. They do know how to “roll with the punches” with their lifetime experience, as opposed to the “newbies” whose incipient anxiety is brought to the forefront and who might not even recognize these debilitating symptoms and are not keen, for reasons of stigma, to be seen by a mental health expert unless compelled to.

It is up to us as psychiatrists and other mental health clinicians to minimize dependence on those medications by using alternative non–dependence-forming anxiolytics and encouraging our patients to hone and develop the skills from cognitive-behavioral therapy. COVID-19 is just one more stressor, superimposed on many others, and unlikely to precipitate any “tipping point” in functioning, even if there are significant losses among loved ones to the virus.

How about our child and adolescent patients? As a rule of thumb, those with anxiety disorders, social anxiety, selective mutism – and those experiencing challenges and bullying in the rough and tumble world of schools – are doing significantly better. Those with ADHD and impulse control disorders, however, might be struggling with school, especially with Zoom calls and very high distractibility, boredom, and motivational challenges. They may need their doses of medications adjusted up, and their parents are struggling. The risk for unwitnessed and unmonitored abuse in home situations is higher.

Those with chronic mental illness often do have increased risk factors for COVID-19 that might be compounded by their psychopharmacologic treatment for conditions/behaviors such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and substance use. By proactively monitoring those comorbid disorders in a multimodal treatment program, we can help mitigate those baseline challenges.

This aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is, alas, likely to prove to be an illusory positive “blip” on the radar screen for many with chronic mental illness. Nevertheless, the self-knowledge and awareness of hidden strengths rather than weakness, resilience rather than shrinking from challenges, is not insignificant. This “flight into normality” may be a change that can be internalized and nurtured once vaccines are available and life on planet Earth returns to a new normal.

Dr. Tofler is affiliated with Kaiser Permanente Psychiatry in Los Angeles. He also is a visiting faculty member in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Tofler has no conflicts of interest.

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