Morgan Stanley
  • Now, What's Next? Podcast
  • Feb 3, 2021

Mental Health: The Other Pandemic

Hosted by Sonari Glinton

Transcript

Sonari Glinton:

A quick note before we begin, this episode is about mental health. If you feel like you need help, trust me, you are not alone. So look at the show notes on your device. We put some links to organizations that can help you get the support you need. That's something we could all use right now. It's okay to not be okay.

Sonari Glinton:

I'm Sonari Glinton, and welcome back to Now, What's Next? An original podcast from Morgan Stanley.

Sonari Glinton:

All right. See, these guys are going to be hungry.

Sonari Glinton:

Maybe the only glamorous thing about the strip mall that contains Yo's Aquarium is that it's near the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It's where Judy Garland and Rudolph Valentino are buried. I bought a 20 gallon fish tank this year from Yo's Aquarium, got all my fish and most of the equipment from Mr. Yo himself. He's more than a pet shop owner. He's a fish whisperer of sorts, and business has been booming, probably because, like me, there's a lot of folks out there who need to get their minds off the state of the world.

Sonari Glinton:

And they're off.

Sonari Glinton:

My friend, Steve Lombardo, he wanted a hobby to soothe his mind in this past year. And if you've been following the series, you might remember Lombardo from our restaurants episode. It's a stressful time to keep a restaurant open, trust me, and it's been getting to him. So he got into bonsai trees. You know, those tiny meticulously pruned trees that are part of Japanese culture? And he told me I definitely needed to get a hobby as well. And so I got a fish tank, and a dozen small fish.

Sonari Glinton:

But this year has been hard, hard, no matter who you are. And I thought I was just fine. I'm strong. I exercise. I see a therapist. I meditate. I thought I had the tools to handle this pandemic. The key is thought.

Sonari Glinton:

For many of us in the early days of this crisis, alarm bells weren't ringing, at least when it came to the mental health part. Here's what I mean. During the first part of the pandemic, some hospitals and emergency rooms experienced a drop in mental health patients.

Curtis Wittman:

We ended up going from these really intense, busy days where the psychiatric part of the emergency department was completely full. We were overflowing into the main part, to almost everybody disappearing. We dropped down to volumes that we hadn't seen, at least routinely, in 10 to 15 years. And it was really unclear what happened to people.

Sonari Glinton:

That's Dr. Curtis Wittman. He's an emergency room psychiatrist at Massachusetts General, popularly, Mass General, in Boston. Now usually, the ER psychiatrist sees a lot of patients who are facing some of mental health crisis. There are people who need help with severe anxiety and depression, substance abuse, psychosis. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

Sonari Glinton:

For a moment, in spring, they all seemed to vanish and he wondered, "Well, where did they all go? Well, the doctor didn't have to wonder for long. That's because not only did they all come back, a lot more of us came back with them.

Sonari Glinton:

By July, 2020 surveys suggested more than half of us were suffering mental health problems because of COVID's impact. Public health professionals say we're on the brink of a huge mental health crisis. A Harvard University study suggests that the mental health costs from this pandemic could be as high as 1.6 trillion, with a T, dollars. That's the a number that's hard to wrap your head around. What it says, though, is that a lot of people face serious mental health challenges right now, whether it's ourselves, our friends, coworkers, family, or all of the above.

Sonari Glinton:

This season on Now, What's Next? an original podcast from Morgan Stanley, we're trying to figure out what life after a global pandemic looks like or can look like. Some of these changes will be subtle, others dramatic. But no matter what, even after the dust settles, life is not going back to the way it was before. We're exploring how the world continues to evolve in the face of a global crisis and the rare chance it gives us to rethink our old assumptions. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, but it's also an opportunity to create real and lasting change. Today, what's next for mental health?

Sonari Glinton:

Curtis Whitman's emergency room did not stay quiet for long.

Curtis Wittman:

We had one day where we had 44 patients in our emergency department seeking psychiatric care, which is really intense and way beyond what we are ... We have six specific beds designated for psychiatric patients, and so ...

Sonari Glinton:

Six beds, 44 people. That's one single day of Dr. Whitman's life under COVID. We talked to him in late November of 2020, long past those early quiet days in the spring. He now sees his workplace in a much starker light.

Curtis Wittman:

It looks much more like the kind of crisis hospitals that get set up after a disaster or in a war zone or someplace like that. It's painful to watch.

Sonari Glinton:

When your job becomes this overwhelming, you can't help but feel like you're just not doing enough.

Curtis Wittman:

It's painful for me to see this and think about how hard it is to be a person who's already in crisis, already struggling with feeling very depressed or hearing voices, and then we're asking them to sit in a chair for 24 hours to wait to get care, which feels terrible.

Sonari Glinton:

Now, amidst all this chaos. There are moments, ones in which he can pause and listen to his patients. They tell him the same thing again and again.

Curtis Wittman:

We're hearing a lot of, "I couldn't see my provider anymore because I didn't have access to telemedicine, and my provider is 100% remote," or "I am struggling with not having social connections anymore because the people that I would have normally seen are trying to remain socially distant, and so I'm not seeing people who I use for supports as often."

Sonari Glinton:

If emergency psychiatric units like Dr. Whitman's are overcrowded, well, it's because people are suffering like never before. We saw it ourselves making this series.

Sonari Glinton:

Our own guests said they were struggling. Here's just a few of them, including my buddy, Lombardo. The one with the bonsai tree.

Steve Lombardo:

It's been one of the hardest things that we've ever had to deal with, and you want to talk about what kept me up at night praying, it was that.

Alison Harsh:

I didn't imagine that I was going to be going through so much stress that I did.

Jessica Nabongo:

Rock bottom was definitely around the end of March.

Ashley Mitchell:

I'm working by myself, indoors alone, and then I found the winter was coming around the corner, and I knew what a state I was going to get myself then.

Valerie Workman:

I knew depression set in for a lot of people because there was no light at the end of the tunnel. For some people there still is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Tiffany Smith:

You could see the level of stress and frustration in people's faces.

Jessica Nabongo:

It doesn't matter, race, gender. It doesn't matter income. It doesn't matter class. Everyone was affected in some way.

Sonari Glinton:

Right now, it's totally normal to wonder if the entire world is going mad, except mental health has always been at near crisis levels. Dr. Whitman says this problem predates the pandemic.

Curtis Wittman:

There was absolutely a crisis before. I think what's different is there's just extra. But I don't think society as a whole has really grappled with the fact that we have a lot of need for psychiatric care, and we are not meeting that need, or we're not close to meeting that need.

Sonari Glinton:

Meeting that need is going to take some creativity and a few new ideas, and we'll get to that in a few minutes. Some of us, though, are seeking help for the first time.

Sonari Glinton:

Tell me who you are and something interesting about you, I guess.

Ghazal Azarbad:

Something interesting about me? Oh God, this question always stresses me out. I guess I have-

Sonari Glinton:

I don't want to stress you out.

Ghazal Azarbad:

No, no, no. I'm kidding.

Sonari Glinton:

Ghazal Azarbad is a 27-year-old actor from Vancouver. Born in Iran, she moved to Canada when she was a toddler. This year, she took therapy seriously, which for her, is a little unusual. She was raised in a family and a culture that didn't believe in therapy.

Ghazal Azarbad:

Any other Western therapy jargon that you would use today wasn't really in my household. So whenever I would go through periods of depression, I would be told, "Oh, you're just sad," or it's just something that you got to bounce back from.

Sonari Glinton:

Yeah, or in my tradition, it would be, "Baby, you just need to pray on that."

Ghazal Azarbad:

That's right, that's right. Any time I felt pain or sadness or anger, or any overwhelming emotion that needed some sort of attention, often what would happen is I would be told, "Well, you don't even have it that bad. We came from Iran. Here are the stories that we can share." And then they would share these traumatizing stories, which would make my stories feel like a Tic Tac in comparison to them.

Sonari Glinton:

But as the awfulness of this past year crested, Ghazal realized she needed some professional support. She saw beyond her family's traditional resistance to therapy, and all because she witnessed the rising of a different kind of resistance.

Ghazal Azarbad:

The pandemic was one thing, but then, yeah, the reemerging of Black Lives Matter and anti-racial conversations that have been percolating over the last few years, but then this year it became impossible to not persist. I wasn't able to let it go. I wasn't able to just be like, "Yeah, you know what? Let's just whatever. Let's keep the peace." It became very necessary to drive the point all the way home.

Sonari Glinton:

Ghazal engaged, stood up against racism, defended her ideas. It cost her friendships, damaged relationships with family, but she persisted. And it may be because this moment echoed moments from her own past.

Ghazal Azarbad:

When 9/11 happened, I was nine or 10 years old. And the treatment I received after that was a night and day. I have been called terrorist a lot, and by the time I hit high school, it was one of those things where the thing I cringe about today is how I then internalized comments like, "Oh, you're terrorists. You're going to blow the school up one day."

Sonari Glinton:

That terrible time plays like a loop in her head still. She found her life collapsing into itself. So she went online, asked friends for advice, and found herself a therapist.

Ghazal Azarbad:

Yeah. I actually posted on Instagram. I shared a story saying, "I'm looking for therapy. Please send me your recommendations." So links were shared and resources were shared. And it's funny because I actually ended up going with a white guy, which is the last option that I thought I was going to go for. But he happens to be exactly the kind of therapy that I need, and his understanding of racism is really ... It's just really deep, so I'm able to open up to him.

Sonari Glinton:

Ghazal could have kept on internalizing the racism, but this year she confronted it.

Ghazal Azarbad:

The beautiful realizations I've had through therapies since I started in June has been that I'm allowed to say no, and that's okay. And I'm still deserving of love. I'm allowed to stand up for my voice, and that's okay. I'm deserving of love.

Sonari Glinton:

Part of it Ghazal's path to therapy included rejecting our family's cultural resistance to therapy, and it's a variation on a theme. Lots of folks resist reaching out to a therapist.

Camesha L. Jones:

I think part of the stigma that still exists is our narrative as black folks of being strong and resilient. And in some ways it's powerful, and in other ways it is hindering. And then sometimes just feeling shame about even needing mental health services is something else that comes up for people, specifically, people who are first timers.

Sonari Glinton:

This is Camesha L. Jones. She's a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago. She's a therapist, and she's a bit relieved to see that despite continued doubts about therapy, people are finally coming to see her.

Camesha L. Jones:

I hear women who are like, "I've had to choose between my career and my family. I had to quit my job to be at home with my family for e-learning, and my cousin just passed away from COVID, and I am now having to also be away from my family." And then I think that people are also realizing like, "I need to get help for this thing, because if I don't get help, I will completely fall apart."

Sonari Glinton:

Now Camesha says the majority of her patients this year are a bit like us all, first timers.

Camesha L. Jones:

I would say maybe 60% of the people that I see are coming to therapy for the first time. They call us for a consultation. They're like, "I don't even know what this therapy thing is. I don't know what to expect."

Sonari Glinton:

How many people do you think are out there who are suffering and aren't getting the help of any sort?

Camesha L. Jones:

The average time that people take to actually get mental health services when they've experienced symptoms is 10 years, 10 years.

Sonari Glinton:

Hold on a second. Hold on a second. So I'm upset because my dad dies. A decade later, I go to try to figure that out.

Camesha L. Jones:

Exactly. Exactly. Even in the data that we take, we ask, "How many years have you been living with your mental health condition? Zero to five, five to 10, 10 plus years?" And most people put five to 10 years.

Sonari Glinton:

10 years, 10 years before someone asks for help. That is a long time to live with an untreated, potentially debilitating mental illness. There are plenty of reasons for that, though. Social stigma, that's one. Poverty and institutional racism are others.

Camesha L. Jones:

Historically, the black community has not had a good experience with the healthcare systems, still are not having a good experience with the healthcare system. There's so many people who need care that aren't able to access it. So one of the things is, statistically, black folks are the highest uninsured in the country. So say I don't have insurance. I cannot pay for my mental health services.

Sonari Glinton:

Affordability and access to different, but linked barriers to getting support. To challenge this, the pandemic forces some of us to push past, as Camesha's growing list of first-time clients shows.

Camesha L. Jones:

I think what has changed is people are like, "I don't have any other options. What are my other options?"

Sonari Glinton:

There are, in fact, more and more options available to manage our mental health, options that can help break down some of those barriers. And it goes beyond the traditional solutions like talk therapy and medication, or fish tanks in my case. For instance, major money has been invested in wellness apps.

Sonari Glinton:

My favorite example is that for months there was an eight story tall billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood with LeBron James advertising a meditation app. Can we reflect on that for a moment? LeBron James, one of the greatest athletes of all time, leader of the current NBA world champions, and the face of a meditation app. These apps are having a moment. Downloads were up at least 20% this past year.

Kristen Choi:

I've tried a few of them. I've tried a Headspace and Calm. I really like them.

Sonari Glinton:

Kristen Choi is a practicing psychiatric nurse. She's also an assistant professor of nursing and public health at UCLA.

Kristen Choi:

I do notice that when I did use them consistently, even though it's hard to do it, that they really helped me in terms of how I was feeling and just my general mood during the day.

Sonari Glinton:

Like Dr. Whitman, Kristen has experienced the effects of the pandemic from the front line. She sees how the need for mental health services is skyrocketing, and yet some of us still aren't finding it.

Kristen Choi:

We know that there are really big gaps in mental health providers for both children and adults, and that many Americans live in areas where there simply are no mental health care providers.

Sonari Glinton:

So Kristen understands why wellness apps are filling a need in this space. Apps lower the bar to entry, they're accessible to anyone with a smartphone, and relatively inexpensive compared to a doctor's bill. And Kristen also thinks the virtual medical appointments will only get more popular. Nearly 70% of all doctor visits this past year took place online, that includes therapy.

Kristen Choi:

For a lot of people, I think that being able to maybe text a therapist or have a phone call with a therapist is more accessible and less scary to try, and so I think that those lowered barriers to starting mental health services can really be a great thing to getting more people into care who might be willing to try something that doesn't feel quite so intense as a face-to-face session with a therapist.

Sonari Glinton:

And because apps make it easier to find help, it can push us past the stigma some of us still harbor. And if that's still not enough, Kristen says the future of mental health can benefit from giving nurses like her a bigger role to play.

Kristen Choi:

I see nurses as a really optimal solution to some of those mental health gaps for a couple of reasons. People have a tendency to just trust nurses more than they trust others and to assume that nurses are going to be on their team and have their best interest in mind. And people may be more apt to seek care from a nurse or talk to a nurse about mental health issues, where they may not be comfortable doing that with others simply because of this preexisting and fairly unique public trust.

Sonari Glinton:

If there's one thing about this pandemic, it has given us permission to admit that we feel terrible or bored or lonely or anxious, that we're not handling it. It may be that all you need is a bit of meditation and to turn off cable news, or maybe you just need a pet, like my fish. For some of us, it could be medication, or it's medication, meditation, a pet, turning off the news, and talk therapy.

Sonari Glinton:

However, you make the effort to look after yourself, it's important to do just that. Take care of yourself. We've been conditioned to associate mental illness with weakness. That attitude can leave you hopeless, but there is hope to be found out there. It's just a question of where you'll find it.

Sonari Glinton:

I want to come back to Camesha Jones, the Chicago therapist I chatted with for this episode. She shared a story that helped me reframe how I feel about what's going on right now. She visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Visitors experience the struggle of black people by walking through time. You move through the exhibits and witness the countless moments where black folks have been oppressed. And as you experience this, you're moving closer and closer to the present day.

Camesha L. Jones:

And then you're seeing all these things that our ancestors went through, and then you get to the top, and the last picture they have is of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, and you break down. And you break down because you realize like, "Wow. My people are amazing. We went through so much, but still there's something powerful within us."

Sonari Glinton:

Camesha found hope inside that museum, hope in defiance of generations of grief and mental anguish. I find comfort in that. And she knows that things can get better, that you can heal.

Camesha L. Jones:

Healing is not linear. It's messy. It's messy and it takes something within you to say that "I'm still going to show up and I'm still going to be determined to heal what needs to be healed in my life." And so I also want people to see that this thing, it takes a minute, but if you're determined, you'll find things in yourself that you never realized or never knew was there.

Sonari Glinton:

Right now, we're facing incredibly difficult times. What's next. hopefully, is giving ourselves the time to heal. Now, if you feel like you need help, and we all do at some time or another, please check in with a friend or family member. There are resources online to help you cope, and you can find the list in the episode show notes.

Sonari Glinton:

That's the season, and this was our last episode for now. We're already working on the next season. So in the meantime, let me know what you think. Leave a rating and a review on Apple Podcast and subscribe if you haven't done so already. Until then, stay safe, stay healthy. Don't text and drive. I'm Sonari Glinton. This is Now, What's Next? An original podcast from Morgan Stanley.

The strain is showing on us all. As a parallel mental health crisis emerges from the pandemic, many of us are admitting that we need help. It’s an opportunity to finally take mental health seriously.

The pandemic has created a huge mental health crisis. We’re all feeling the strain - and many of us are admitting, for the first time, that we need help. It’s ok to not be ok. And in the last episode of our season, we look at how this pandemic forces us to examine our own mental health - and helps us erase the stigma around asking for help.

Host Sonari Glinton hears how COVID-19 exposed how broken our mental healthcare system already was. Dr. Curtis Wittman reflects on the mental health crisis from the health care front line. Ghazal Azarbad explains why this was the year she took therapy seriously. Camesha L. Jones is a therapist who is seeing more first time patients than ever. And Dr. Kristen R. Choi is a Registered Nurse who teaches at UCLA. She’s thinking through how this crisis creates opportunities for new approaches and technologies for managing our own mental health.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, the following is a list of some mental health resources:

In the U.S.A.

In the UK

In Canada

For Kids and Teens