Portland doctor assesses impact of pandemic on mental health

Three years after the pandemic began, a Portland physician assessed where the world is now, what people have learned, and what’s next.

PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s been three years since the pandemic hit, stopping everyone in their tracks. It turned everyday life upside down, claimed millions of lives, revealed systemic problems and changed the way people think about health.

A Portland doctor weighs in on where the world is now, what people have learned, and what’s next. Despite the vaccination, he said COVID mutates so it will last a long time, just like the flu.

“We now realize that COVID is with us forever,” said Dr. James Polo, executive medical director of Oregon’s Regence BlueCross BlueShield. “Vaccinations and boosters will continue to be part of our future, and we will likely continue to struggle with some of the emotional impacts caused by the pandemic.”

Polo also addressed the lasting impacts of COVID on people’s mental health.

“Typically, whenever you have a significant disaster-type event, the behavioral health response that follows is more long-lasting,” Polo said.

The ripple effect of the pandemic has changed many people’s relationships and how they interact with others, how they work and, at one point, how their children went to school. All of this change and isolation has come with prolonged anxiety, worry, stress, and depression for many.

“It takes a while to recover from that long period of stress and anxiety,” Polo said.

Polo, an expert in behavioral health, said the pandemic has forced many to start thinking about mental health and has also normalized seeking help.

Your first lesson is that stress is normal, emotional responses to stress are normal, and it’s okay to not be okay.

Polo then emphasized that mental health and physical health go hand in hand. A good foundation for health: eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep – these things help to strengthen mental health.

Finally, anyone who feels they need help should reach out and get it. Polo said to start with trusted friends and family and then reach out to a professional if necessary.

The national mental health crisis hotline is 988 and is a resource for help any day, any time.

“If you’re having difficulties that really seem beyond what you can handle, reach out to a professional, starting perhaps with your primary care physician, and potentially be referred to some behavioral health service,” Polo said.

Even getting sick with COVID can have a negative impact on mental health.

“Remember that people who have a serious illness can sometimes have subsequent depression related to that illness,” Polo said. “So we’re looking for people with COVID from a medical standpoint who also have depression.”

There are also long term impacts of the COVID virus itself. Doctors are still learning about the effect COVID-19 can have on the body, even after recovery from the initial illness.

Some people are still dealing with what is called ‘long-term COVID’ or post-COVID conditions. This can include a wide range of ongoing health issues that last for weeks, months or even years.

“One of the most common is the feeling of being clouded or confused, not really organized as well as they thought they were before,” Polo said.

This is called COVID haze and is one of the most commonly reported post-COVID conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can make people feel tired or have a level of fatigue that interferes with daily life.

Other post-COVID conditions can present with neurological, respiratory, cardiac and digestive symptoms, and even muscle and joint pain.

There is no test that determines whether a person’s symptoms or condition is due to COVID-19. A physician will consider a post-COVID condition based on their patient’s health history.

Moving forward, many people are retaining lessons learned during the pandemic, such as the need for work-life balance, virtual and expanded health options, and the importance of good hygiene.

“And I also hope that people have learned that it’s really safe to get vaccinated and that they do. Not only is being vaccinated a good thing for them individually, but it helps protect the people around them,” Polo said.

Portland doctor assesses impact of pandemic on mental health

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