Advising Patients on COVID When You Don’t Have Any Answers

How do we cope?

Emily S. Goncalves, MD, MBA


February 03, 2022

As a psychiatrist, I often deal with the concern of anxiety. I have noticed an increase in this complaint as COVID-19 continues to disrupt day-to-day norms, such as going to school, going to work, and socializing.

I personally noticed a large increase in the young adult patients with concerns of anxiety, depression, and social isolation. Patients are confused about what to do for family get-togethers, holiday gatherings, and going to in-person events. College students are doing classes remotely and are not able to have the camaraderie that a university experience offers. They are feeling the effects of isolation and their depressive symptoms worsen.

From a medication standpoint, I have suggestions and ideas; but from a therapeutic perspective, I feel stuck at times. As a psychiatrist, we do not promote social isolation and try to encourage patients to see family and friends and to go out. Is this safe? Are the benefits of socializing outweighing the risks of potentially contracting COVID-19? I personally believe that for the vaccinated and boosted patients, it is vital for their mental health to see other vaccinated family members and friends, but I advise mask wearing when possible and keeping activities outside, which is challenging in the winter months.

I am often asked by patients if it is safe to return to in-person school and work. Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to a lot of their questions and punt the question over to their primary care physician. I encourage vaccinations and getting the booster shot, but of course that does not guarantee full protection. We are all learning more about the virus daily and the infectivity rate changes with each new variant, so guiding patients can be a confusing process for physicians.

Vaccinated and boosted patients are obviously in a better position to return in person than those who are unvaccinated, but it seems that my vaccinated patients have more anxiety regarding COVID and want to remain cautious. I share with patients that I am cautiously optimistic and am hoping we will return to a new sense of normalcy within the next few months. We are in a much better position compared with 2020, with the development of vaccines and boosters, and scientists and physicians working tirelessly to find answers.

So what do I tell patients? First, that I don’t have all the answers but that getting vaccinated and boosted is the best way to keep yourself and your family safe. Second, I tell them how I socialize during the surge of Omicron — outdoors and often running (even in the cold). I cannot stress enough how good a run or walk can feel, especially with friends.

Grab a hot drink while going on that walk and it’s a recipe for success!

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About Dr Emily Goncalves
Emily S. Goncalves, MD, MBA, is a psychiatry resident at Delaware Psychiatric Center in New Castle. She is a competitive runner and ran for Syracuse University. She continues to live an active lifestyle and has competed in eight marathons, including the Boston Marathon. Emily hopes to share her passion for running with her patients and is interested in pursuing a career in consultation and liaison psychiatry. She also enjoys writing about her running adventures.


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