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June 02, 2021

Behavioral health numbers up; Fighting holiday stress during a pandemic

Behavioral health numbers up; Fighting holiday stress during a pandemic

The past year has been filled with anxiety, disappointment, and heartache. Never has it been more challenging than during the holidays. IU Health psychiatrist Anne Gilbert offers insight into ways to help you cope.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

We are a world in mourning. We mourn the loss of loved ones. We mourn the loss of normalcy. And this time of year, we mourn the loss of tradition.

In the past year, IU Health emergency room providers have seen double the amount of patients coming in with a primary diagnosis of behavioral health,” said IU Health psychiatrist Dr. Anne Gilbert. A lot of behavioral health inpatient units are also at near capacity, she added.

Dr. Gilbert poses for a photo with a smile

The most common diagnoses are depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety, said Dr. Gilbert. She has been with IU Health for more than 30 years and serves as the director for IU Health’s Virtual Behavioral Health.

The increase isn’t unique to IU Health.

“There is similar data for suicide and crisis lines and other hospitals are reporting a similar surge,” said Dr. Gilbert. While many of the patients already displayed signs and symptoms of substance abuse and psychiatric disorders before COVID-19, the pandemic has contributed greatly to the increase, she said.

Dr. Gilbert said stressors of the pandemic include:

  • Real and growing risk to life and health
  • Grieving the loss of friends and family members both through death and through quarantine.
  • Real and growing risk to our current and future economic stability.
  • Isolation. “We are social animals. Even the introverts among us like a little distant companionship. Masks and Zoom Meetings make it hard to interpret non verbal communication which is more than 50% of our communication pathway,” said Dr. Gilbert.
  • Complexity of our lives – juggling childcare, no childcare, school, no school, and multiple roles.
  • Lack of fun – our usual breaks from the realities of life are gone - vacations, parties, sports, lunch with friends, nails and massage appointments.
  • Racial unrest and awareness of implicit bias that many are just coming to understand.
  • The division caused by our country’s Presidential Election.

So, how can people cope during the holidays? Dr. Gilbert suggests promoting and paying special attention to mental health – both personally and with loved ones. For those hospitalized during this time of visitor restrictions, IU Health offers several ways to connect with loved ones, including Face Time, and a virtual postcard program delivered to a patient’s room.

Outside the hospital, Dr. Gilbert suggests family members switch screen time with personal contact time – call on friends, family members, and neighbors. Here are some other suggestions from Dr. Gilbert:

  • Pick up or renew a hobby. Learn something new like how to play the guitar, speak Spanish, study medieval history, or great religions of the world.
  • Prioritize self-care. “This is no time to not read that fun book or not take the hot bath.”
  • Start or maintain a spiritual practice or connect with nature. Watch birds, walk in the rain or snow, sit out with a blanket on your back porch, or hike to a new location.
  • Exercise online or take up jogging or walking.
  • Allow yourself time to mourn the loss of your favorite holiday. “It’s okay to be sad and even to pity yourself,” she said.

As families face the holidays apart, Dr. Gilbert suggests finding ways to start new traditions that will make the holiday special. Watch a favorite movie, cook a new dish, make homemade dog treats, record in a journal about successes and memories from years past, or write gratitude letters to special people in your life.

Above all, she cautions don’t ignore the signs of depression. If you or someone you know needs behavioral health services call IU Health at 317-329-7313.

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