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Mental Health Care Important During Pandemic, Says OU College of Medicine Psychiatrist

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Living in an unprecedented time of pandemic and social distancing brings the potential for mental health problems.

However, according to Dr. Britta Ostermeyer, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the OU College of Medicine, there are concrete ways to take action and manage fears that are beyond our control. But actions should be grounded in following expert advice to wash your hands frequently and keep some distance from other people.

“By following advice to stay at home as much as possible, there is meaning in that. We are not totally powerless, and hopefully that will alleviate some of our fears,” Ostermeyer said. “However, beyond what we each can do, we have to manage our anxiety around things that we cannot control.”

If people are at home, Ostermeyer recommends keeping a routine schedule, and taking “time-outs” from media consumption during the day rather than continually looking for the latest updates about the COVID-19 pandemic. Families should be intentional about sharing meal times and take part in games or hobbies that provide a positive outlet. Exercise, either on one’s own or through a virtual opportunity, is an important relief for stress, as are other options like yoga and meditation.

Staying in touch with family and friends, via technology, is especially important at this time, Ostermeyer said. If people are isolated without human contact, they’re more prone to depression. Talking to family and friends also provides reassurance and can lessen anxiety. Staying in touch with elderly loved ones also is important for their overall mental and physical health.

“Alleviating stress is very important for all of us because it will help us sleep better at night. Sleep is crucial for both mental and physical health,” she said.

People who have existing mental health problems like depression or anxiety will be more vulnerable during this time, Ostermeyer said. Taking medicines as prescribed is important so that a person doesn’t relapse because of stress or distraction. She also recommends that people stay in touch with their physicians during this time because prescriptions can be renewed without an in-person office visit.

People who have a tendency to consume more alcohol or other substances when they are anxious should monitor their intake or seek help if their sobriety seems at risk. Even caffeine can have a negative effect during times of heightened anxiety.

“Caffeine-fueled anxiety and insomnia can be a problem,” she said. “If people find themselves in that position, they should consider having only one cup of coffee in the morning, or switching to decaf, or stopping caffeine altogether right now if they’re especially sensitive.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is unique in that it has become a global epidemic rather than one that only affecting people in certain parts of the nation or world. When it was only affecting China, people in the United States didn’t feel immediately threatened or anxious. But now that the virus has moved across the globe, it’s a different feeling that cannot be escaped, Ostermeyer said.

In times of crisis, it’s human nature to find a scapegoat, Ostermeyer said, because we have somebody to blame and offload our negative energy. However, viruses have no ethnicity, nor does scapegoating help the situation, she said.

“We have to channel our energy on what we can and should be doing and on the management of ourselves and our families,” she said. “We need to make a conscious effort to remind ourselves that this needs to be fought together.”

The world will be changed permanently from this pandemic, Ostermeyer said, and some of it can be positive.

“I hope there will be a better, increased understanding of each other’s needs and safety, which will be helpful in many different situations,” she said. “This pandemic means that we are all in the same boat. This is a matter of humanity for all of us.”

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OU Medicine — along with its academic partner, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center — is the state’s only comprehensive academic health system of hospitals, clinics and centers of excellence. With 11,000 employees and more than 1,300 physicians and advanced practice providers, OU Medicine is home to Oklahoma’s largest physician network with a complete range of specialty care. OU Medicine serves Oklahoma and the region with the state’s only freestanding children’s hospital, the only National Cancer Institute-Designated Stephenson Cancer Center and Oklahoma’s flagship hospital, which serves as the state’s only Level 1 trauma center. OU Medicine is the No. 1 ranked hospital system in Oklahoma, and its oncology program at Stephenson Cancer Center and OU Medical Center ranked in the Top 50 in the nation, in the 2019-2020 rankings released by U.S. News & World Report. OU Medicine was also ranked by U.S. News & World Report as high performing in four specialties: Ophthalmology in partnership with Dean McGee Eye Institute, Colon Surgery, COPD and Congestive Heart Failure. OU Medicine’s mission is to lead healthcare in patient care, education and research. To learn more, visit