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Coping With the Effects of COVID-19 on Mental Health

The coronavirus pandemic has been impacting the mental health of many. Varun Choudhary, MD, MA, DFAPA, the chief medical officer of behavioral health at Magellan Healthcare, discusses how people can cope and the future of mental healthcare.

Varun Choudhary, MD, MA, DFAPA

Chief Medical Officer of Behavioral Health, Magellan Healthcare

What are ways to cope with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues during a pandemic where you are forced into self-isolation?

While the pandemic may be causing you and your loved ones feelings of anxiety and apprehension, now is a good time to look for reasons to be positive. There are many ways you can nurture yourself, improve your mood, and help others:

  • Be kind: Call your friends and neighbors. Maintain social distancing but smile and offer gratitude to all the grocery workers who are keeping the shelves stocked. Ask an elderly neighbor if they need anything. An act of kindness boosts serotonin, a natural antidepressant in your brain, in both you and others.
  • Be thankful: Don’t rush through your daily interactions on autopilot. Slow down and notice when someone is kind to you, even in the smallest way, and show them your appreciation. When you practice thankfulness, you become more positive; that helps others feel good too.
  • Deepen your connections: Share your feelings about this experience with those closest to you. Encourage each other to make the best of this moment in time and come up with a game plan to support each other moving forward.
  • Move your body: Exercise is vital to maintaining physical and mental health. Get your heart pumping by taking a walk in your neighborhood, going on a hike in nature, or using an app for a guided training or yoga session. If you do go outside for a walk, maintain social distancing.
  • Write down your thoughts: Keeping a journal is a powerful way to get perspective. Clarifying your thoughts and feelings on paper helps you get to know yourself better and release the stresses of daily life.
  • Meditate: All you need to do is sit quietly for a few minutes, breathe deeply, and let your mind relax. Meditation alleviates anxiety and helps you get in touch with your inner self, helping you face the world in a centered and focused way. Find free guided meditation sessions online.
  • Determine what is really bothering you: Vague worries are harder to manage because they are all jumbled together. Try to get clear on what you are specifically concerned about. Finding the root of the worry helps you figure out what to do about it.
  • Play games: Engaging in a game with others online, or even by yourself on your phone, helps you take your mind off other things. Give yourself permission to have some fun.
  • Dine well: Have fun with food. Make your favorite recipes. Set the table with your finest dishes. Cook a meal with others. If you live alone, share pictures with friends for fun.
  • Remind yourself that this will pass: Try and come to terms with what you can’t control and focus on what you can do to move through this time in a positive way. Draw on skills you have used during other difficult times and remember how those times eventually passed by.

However, if you find that your condition is deteriorating and impairing your ability to function, please seek professional help. There are numerous telehealth options available.

How does Magellan Healthcare use its platform to advocate for mental health awareness?

As an organization, our purpose is leading humanity to healthy, vibrant lives. We manage some of the most complex areas of health, including behavioral health and employee assistance program services, specialty health, and integrated care management to health plans, employers, Medicaid, Medicare, and the federal government. We advocate for mental health awareness across our business lines and in the community every day.

For example, since the start of COVID-19, our organization has been engaged in a variety of mental health awareness initiatives, including opening our crisis hotline to help first responders and healthcare workers with their mental health and emotional well-being concerns, hosting two public webinars on how to build resilience and cope with grief and uncertainty during COVID-19, presenting a video series about different ways COVID-19 can affect your mental health and how to cope, making our RESTORE app for help with insomnia free to the public, publishing tip sheets and blogs to help with many different mental health concerns, and more.

All these resources are available to the public on our website at, on the COVID-19 response page.

What is one piece of advice you would give someone who may have difficulty bringing up the subject of mental illness with a friend or family member?

Focus on being supportive. When someone is going through a tough time and you are talking to them about it, it is important to give them space to process their situation and keep their self-respect. Engage in the “80-20” rule: listen 80 percent of the time and speak 20 percent of the time. Listen respectfully and do not interject with advice or solutions until the person is done filling you in on as much as they are comfortable with. Empathize with them and focus on communicating hope and offering to help them find support or go to the doctor with them.

What do you see for the future of the mental health industry?

Achieving parity in mental health insurance coverage including appropriate access to timely person-centered care. The 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act requires insurance coverage for mental health conditions, including substance use disorders, to be no more restrictive than insurance coverage for other medical conditions. However, it still needs to be fully implemented by all carriers. Right now, medically necessary and clinically appropriate treatments for mental health and substance use disorder are excluded from coverage more frequently than treatments for other medical conditions, and when they are included, the prior authorization and other types of utilization reviews are performed in a more stringent manner than other types of medical care.

For mental health treatment to be successful, it must be fully integrated with physical healthcare. At Magellan we are focused on developing collaborative care models that take a holistic approach to overall health and bring mental health services into primary care spaces and into communities.  We need to improve access to mental health services and treatment for the millions of people who need it.

What is one innovation in the mental health space that is important for readers to know about?

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the importance of using telehealth, including virtual therapy, to deliver care. Both providers and patients need to feel more comfortable using telehealth to deliver and access care. This requires a significant change in how care is managed and deployed; being proactive now will result in better care over the long term.

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