Consult-Liaison COVID-19 Homelessness Nonfiction Reflection

How One Psychiatrist is Coping with the Pandemic.

Context: I work as the medical director for an agency that provides shelter, permanent supportive housing, and crisis and behavioral health services. I also do clinical work there as a psychiatrist, where I see people in shelter, housing, and in clinic.[1. A few of the people I see agree to use telehealth, but those who have phones tend to prefer telephone over video.]

Like many other essential workers, my colleagues and I have worked long hours, spent even more hours worrying and planning, and have had to figure out how to manage ourselves in the midst of uncertainty. Though we have been fortunate to be able to move many people out of congregate settings into motel and hotel rooms,[2. Here are some anecdotes about what happens when people move from a congregate setting into their own room with a private bathroom, a bed, and a door that locks: 911 calls go down. People who previously did not routinely take showers start showering daily. Some people use less drugs; some people stop using drugs and alcohol completely. People start planning and taking steps towards goals, such as school, employment, financial planning, relationships.…] we still have some people staying in congregate settings, which is undesirable during a pandemic. Many of the people who stay in shelter and housing have significant and chronic medical problems, which makes us nervous that they will have worse outcomes if they contract Covid-19. I express gratitude every day—though maybe not out loud—for the very few cases that have occurred within the agency. With over 500 people in shelter (though, again, many have moved into motel and hotel rooms) and over 1000 people in permanent supportive housing, plus hundreds who have different living circumstances but are enrolled in our clinics, we thus far have had fewer than 50 positive cases of Covid-19.

The strain on staff is significant. People will have different memories of this pandemic: Some people (reportedly; I don’t personally know anyone who falls into this group) have expressed some relief during this time, as they have the time and resources to do things like learn new languages, travel to cute cabins in remote places, and other things that seem like fiction to me. Others have had to learn how to navigate congregate settings and provide care to people with significant health conditions in the absence of national guidelines and plans.[3. Do I sound resentful? I think the underlying emotion is disappointment.]

I don’t think people who are trained as psychiatrists are necessarily more skilled at coping during a pandemic, as none of us in the US[4. Recall that there have been epidemics in the recent past. I found Mental health and psychosocial support in ebola virus disease outbreaks and Protecting Mental Health During Epidemics helpful… and don’t get the sense that the CDC or other federal agencies have reviewed these articles and/or are interested in providing this sort of support to any of us. Am I still sounding resentful?] have ever lived through one. Here’s what I’ve been doing (or at least trying to do) to manage myself:

Get up early to do stuff to take care of me. (Because I wasn’t born a doctor and, God willing, I will be able to retire before I die.) I aim to get out of bed at 5am. This tends to be the quietest time of day and few, if any, people want or need my attention. The long summer days in Seattle make getting up that early easier, but, let’s be real: Sometimes the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Exercise. Sometimes this means what most people mean by the word “exercise”, like push-ups, squats, etc. Sometimes this means “movement”, which can be a one-person dance party. The face covering mandate has interfered with my willingness to run. I do want to run, but I haven’t been able to get over the hump of running while wearing a mask. (I live in a neighborhood where there are at least some people around, even at 5am. I am committed to wearing a mask when I am out and about.)

Invest time on hobbies. During those early morning hours I study Chinese to improve my literacy. Though I haven’t posted much here, I am trying to write daily (I continue to use 750 Words, which helps me with quantity, even if the quality is terrible).

Eat cookies. Sometimes I eat only a few; sometimes I end up eating over half the box. This is not the greatest coping mechanism, though it is something I have done because my frustration tolerance is sometimes low and impulse control is hard.

Walk during meetings. I’m that person who often joins a video call by telephone. This is related to technological deficits, as well as willfulness: If the meeting doesn’t require video presence, then I will take the less stimulating option of audio only. I occasionally quip that I’m like tuna: If I stop moving, I will die. If I’m able to walk during a meeting, that not only helps me dispel anxious energy, but also reduces the likelihood that I will get distracted by e-mail or other tasks during the meeting. This also helps me feel like I’m taking advantage of the summer weather while we still have it.

Talk to myself. Out loud. And often in an effort to meet and greet whatever emotion I’m feeling. (Hang in there with me.) Earlier this week I exclaimed much louder than I intended, “I feel so anxious!!!” and then proceeded with this conversation:

Hello, Anxiety! What brings you here today? Are you enjoying this summer weather? What are you worried about? What are you trying to tell me today? What can I do to help you feel better?

This is a concrete way to acknowledge whatever it is I am feeling because avoiding emotions is generally impossible and ineffective: It’ll come out some other way (e.g., eating half a box of cookies).

Observe the sky. The sky is bigger than me. The pandemic is bigger than me. The sky changes. The pandemic will change. I want to witness the sky. I want to witness the pandemic. To stop and look at the sky—the clouds, the moon, the sun, the colors—allows me to pause and claim time that sometimes never feels like mine.

Try to make other people laugh. During this time of differing degrees of isolation, sharing laughter with someone is a treasure. Sometimes the humor is admittedly dark, though I much prefer that people get it out of their systems with trusted confidants, rather than on others (like patients).

Sleep. Sometimes sleep doesn’t feel restful—I am sorry to confess that, sometimes, my dreams center on Covid-19—and occasionally I wake up from sleep thinking about all the things I should do related to the pandemic. Having a fixed “get out of bed” time helps with regulating sleep.

Thank people. There is no way any of us could manage this ridiculous time by ourselves. There are so many people to thank: The janitors who clean and sanitize spaces to keep us all healthy. The grocer who is there so you can buy food. The doctors and nurses who provide Covid-19 testing and counseling. The sanitation staff who continue to empty out the garbage and recycling bins. The plumbers who fix emergency sewage leaks. The person on the street who acknowledges you and makes an effort to stay at least six feet away. The bus drivers who continue to transport essential workers around the city. The first responders, including police, who are kind to the seemingly increasing number of people who are sleeping outside. God/the Universe/whatever Deity that I still have a job, a stable place to live, and, thus far, good health.

Do you have other suggestions?