Virus crisis a threat to mental health

BAR HARBOR — As a psychiatrist, Dr. Rebekah Villarreal is concerned about people who had been dealing with mental health problems before the coronavirus scare came along. 

“I worry that, for patients who are already anxious or depressed, the coronavirus can exacerbate that,” she said.  

“One of the things I often talk about with patients with depression is their need to be more active and have more socialization. And that’s particularly difficult right now.” 

She said she encourages patients to stay engaged with other people as much as possible, even if they can’t be together physically. 

“Some patients are FaceTiming; some are calling their families more. I also encourage them to work on the other basics, like making sure they’re getting enough sleep, that they’re eating well, that they’re doing things that are enjoyable.” 

Villarreal, who practices at the MDI Behavioral Health Center in Bar Harbor, said the situation is similar for patients with anxiety disorders. 

“With them, I really emphasize the importance of taking breaks from the news,” she said. “Of course, we need to take coronavirus seriously and get all the newest information, but a 24-hour feed of it tends to just exacerbate anxiety.” 

The coronavirus threat can be particularly challenging for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The mental health website HelpGuide defines OCD as “an anxiety disorder characterized by uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts and ritualized repetitive behaviors you feel compelled to perform. 

A common obsession of people with OCD is a fear of contamination and disease. A common compulsion is excessive hand washing. 

We spend a lot of time trying to help them work through a way to be more functional in the world,” Villarreal said. “Some of our therapies, which are called exposure therapies, ask them to do things like not wash their hands so much, to show them that (not washing all the time) does not become catastrophic. 

“That can be especially hard for these individuals with OCD, when all the information and advice that is coming at everyone now is about hand washing and keeping things clean.” 

With everyone being asked to stay at home as much as possible these days, many families are spending a lot more time together, and for some of them that is great. “But I do worry, in general, that when we’re cooped up together, it can make interpersonal relationships more difficult, especially if there is already some instability in a relationship,” Villarreal said. “Tensions can be higher. Having all that forced time together may add to the stress of having difficulty with work or money problems or full-time childcare because the schools are all closed.” 

Villarreal suggests that people give themselves permission to slow down and not feel they have to be so busy all the time. 

“Maybe this can be an opportunity to explore some other things, such as mindfulness or just being quiet or meditation or reading, things that maybe you’ve wanted to do for a long time but haven’t had a chance. Maybe you can accept those as opportunities rather than thinking of them as a punishment.” 

And when the coronavirus threat is over, and life begins to return to normal?  

“I think there will be residual effects,” Villarreal said. “There will be patients who, during this crisis time, are coping well, but when the crisis is over, they are going to start to feel more symptoms. They will be worrying about what if this happens again  the dread and foreboding.  

“I think it will be an interesting mix of people who start to do better because the economy is picking up again and they are able to work and socialize, and then other people who did fine during the [crisis] but are now struggling to cope with a world that has changed so much.” 


Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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