Managing mental health during a pandemic: Q&A with Dr. Gary Hoffman

Oct 6, 2020


This year, Mental Health Awareness Week looks a little different. In the face of a global pandemic, continued conflict in the world and rising stressors at home, many of us feel more depressed or anxious than usual. We spoke with Gary Hoffman, PhD, clinical psychologist with Adventist Health Hanford, about managing mental health during the pandemic.

How has the pandemic affected people’s mental health?

Dr. Hoffman: The pandemic and its repercussions have a significant impact on mental health. For some people, the virus itself can be worrisome; for others, anxiety comes from watching the news and feeling uncertain or worried about the unrest in the world.

There’s also so much that relates to how we interact with daily life—it could be that you suddenly are spending extra time with your partner and that isn’t going well, it could be a loss of income, worry about your child’s education, managing your work hours. The pandemic has affected people at all stages of life. There are teenagers who want to get their driver’s license but can’t go to the DMV. Some people have lost loved ones and are trying to grieve but can’t visit their families or hold a formal funeral.

Has COVID-19 impacted depression or suicide rates?

Dr. Hoffman: We won’t know until we’re a little further out from the pandemic whether there was an elevation in suicide or depression rates specifically. But our outpatient clinic has seen a record number of referrals in the last few months. People are carrying a lot of burden and stress.

Many patients come to us because they have reported high depression ratings on the mental health questionnaires that they fill out during a primary care appointment. Right now, we are seeing higher depression scores on these screening instruments. Whether or not people’s mental health reaches a critical crisis level, many of us certainly have elevated levels of distress.

How can we improve our mental health during stressful times?

Dr. Hoffman: One of the biggest things I talk about with patients is taking back feelings of control. The pandemic is a situation that has made many of us feel powerless—how can we take some sense of control back? For many people, scheduling a counseling or therapy appointment is the first step to regaining a sense of empowerment.

We encourage people to connect with others and find social support as best they can. Be creative with phone calls, emails or video conferencing. There’s also significant value in taking on projects for self-improvement. Learning to sew, playing a new instrument, gardening or completing woodworking projects can all pique curiosity and contribute to feelings of accomplishment.

Your personal health routines are crucial as well. Eating healthy meals, exercising and sleeping well can all impact our mental health. Many people have let their usual schedules and patterns go, but practicing consistent routines can be a strategy to help people feel in control. You might not be able to participate in all your usual activities, but be creative with what is available—maybe you can do socially-distanced chair yoga or neighborhood walks.

Any tips for navigating holidays during the pandemic?

Dr. Hoffman: We all really miss group events right now. As we head into winter, the holiday season is filled with powerful moments that symbolize connection and love. Some of your usual traditions may not be available to your family this year—instead, try to focus on what you can do. Can you participate in your church service through video conferencing or set up a Zoom call with your extended family?

One exercise I often do with clients is to ask them to find three things they’re grateful for every day. Today might be a tough day. But take a moment to take a deep breath and identify three opportunities for gratitude. This is a tough year, and all of us need to try to focus on living one day at a time. When you take that deep breath, remind yourself that things are okay right here, right now.

If you need more support for your mental health, don’t hesitate to find a doctor today.