Dianova interviewed Barbara L. Ponieman, MD Psychiatrist working in New York City, about the importance of mental health
Before conducting the interview, Dianova asked their followers on social media to identify areas of interest in mental health. Among people’s responses, the elements most mentioned included: anxiety, panic attacks, screen time abuse, social phobia and substance abuse. Barbara responded to these concerns through a series of videos whose messages are part of the interview transcribed below.
María Victoria: Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, mental health has gained momentum and has been identified as a priority by the World Health Organization and some other institutions at international and national levels. What is mental health and why is it so important?
Barbara: This is a great question because the main point to address is that mental health is hyper personal. I can give different perspectives and you can find truth in each one of them. The importance of mental health comes from the fact that it modulates our experiences.
If we provide mental health to those around us their experience can be improved and by extension our experience. Mental health work is an investment in our communities and our people. Paramount in times of change, like the one we are living in today.
MV: And, if it is so important, why didn’t we hear about mental health so frequently before the pandemic? It looked like well-being only meant physical health. Why was that?
B: Well, some of us were immersed in mental health issues prior to the pandemic. I welcome the conversation today due to the thought provoking experiences we are currently facing. I believe the unique experience we are all living makes it for a fundamental topic. Now we are all facing the same situation, in the past different people were at different moments of facing challenges. Today, everyone’s wellness has been shaken one way or another. Mental health treatment is one of many dimensions of wellness. The impact that it can have on other areas of your life can be solid and lasting. These include physical health, social, emotional, spiritual and vocational health.
Mental health and addictions
Social phobia and screen addiction
MV: And what would you say on the effects of this pandemic?
B: This pandemic has had a huge impact on our routines and lives overall. We could call it a traumatic event and as any other form of trauma we need to process its impact as an individual as well as a group.
MV: Many doctors identify the “three Ss: Shame, Silence and Stigma” when patients say “I got Covid, I am sad and afraid to tell people”. Do you think the three Ss also apply when talking about mental health?
B: This is rapidly changing. There is a shift in how we communicate with each other and how we understand that each experience shared needs to be welcomed in the group we belong to.
MV: Dianova ́s social media followers are interested to know more about anxiety, panic attacks, screen time, social phobia, and substance abuse. What would you like to share with them?
B: Anxiety is very uncomfortable, but it is important to know that it is a normal and expected reaction facing danger. The question is why we feel in danger at this time. It is very important for your doctor to rule out any physical causes for anxiety.
Panic attacks and panic disorder can be a more debilitating form of anxiety. Finding someone who can help you is the first step in learning strategies to manage and handle these symptoms. It is best not to do this work alone.
Social phobia can stand in the way of many aspects of someone’s life but, today, with the availability of virtual meetings and telepsychiatry, it is a great tool to start addressing these symptoms.
When it comes to screen addiction, I think it is important to know that we can use maybe one of those hours of screen time to speak with a professional. And that could be a very small change that can have a huge impact on someone’s behavior.
I would emphasize that all these symptoms are an invitation to look into mental health work. It is best to do this work with a professional.
MV: Regarding substance disorder treatment, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of the United States permits doorstep delivery of methadone to people in quarantine or isolation. What do you think about this initiative?
B: This initiative shows how a professional team is thinking about the person’s experience first. It is a caring change in the health system to serve those who need it the most.
Addiction becomes one puzzle piece in someone’s life. We need to understand what role this piece is playing. When working with addictions, motivation is very important. A motivated person has never-ending possibilities. And remember, the work you do in mental health, you take it with you wherever you go.
MV: Covid-19 has taken a huge toll on everybody but also specific populations are affected by natural disasters, climate change, migration and displacement, political instability among other situations, where mental health is impacted too. Do you have any experience with any of these situations?
B: New York is a city that constantly receives immigrants from all over the world. Migrant populations are very resilient and motivated. They understand that the human connection is key to forming a sense of wellbeing. They benefit from mental health education and support to decrease the impact their experiences, sometimes very traumatic, can have at a later date.
The earlier they are given access to mental health services the sooner they will start benefiting from those interventions.
MV: How does gender violence and intimate partner violence affect victim´s mental health?
B: This is a great example on how mental health interventions sometimes have to be accompanied by adjustments in other areas like Mental Health Law, Social Services and peer support. Mental health work can certainly help the victim take that first step to move in a safer direction.
MV: Telemedicine and telehealth have become widespread and some professionals recommend increasing investment so many more mental health interventions can be delivered remotely. What is your professional experience in this area?
B: Telehealth has been great in the increased availability for those who need services. On the other hand face to face interventions will always be necessary. We need a hybrid system that allows adjustments in treatment that follow peoples’ needs.
MV: What role does family play in keeping a good mental health at home?
B: Undoubtedly, an important role of the family group is to maintain an open-minded attitude towards mental health work.
MV: Doctors take care of their patients´ mental health but… Who is taking care of their own mental health and that of other health professionals?
B: We developed a staff wellness branch in our hospital in NYC. It has been well received and we notice a solid use of this service. Every institution needs to provide access and mental health tools for their people. Also protections for those who are vulnerable to experience mental health difficulties. Research shows clearly how much a toxic environment at work affects the team morale.
MV: What activities or routine would you recommend to keep a good mental health?
B: A routine in itself is very important. Writing and journaling what’s on our minds is a great tool that can be later shared with a mental health provider.
What you’re feeling could be the entryway to mental health work and what you are thinking an entryway to growth and further developing areas in your life.
MV: Any mental health tips that you would recommend to Dianova´s subscribers?
B: Consider a conversation with a mental health provider. There are no contraindications. You will become an ambassador for those whom you will cross path in the future.