As a psychiatrist, I've seen how mental health struggles can affect someone's job performance, their productivity, even their ability to engage with their team. To help our portfolio teams manage worries and uncertainty amidst both COVID-19 and a growing awareness of racial injustice, I hosted a panel last week on mental health. We examined ways to cope with quarantine-related anxiety, family issues, the variety of losses many of us are experiencing, burnout, and social isolation.

Accessing mental health help has been made easier by recent changes in regulation. By taking advantage of an unprecedented number of online resources, and focusing our attention on what we can change instead of what we can't, we're better equipped to solve problems during crises like this. For this conversation, I was joined by three talented therapists: Dr. Sheri Kirshenbaum from our portfolio company Quartet Health, and Joe Grasso and Danielle Cottonham from Lyra Health. We discussed the pressures many of us may be facing now, and shared long-term strategies for getting help, and getting better. Here are some highlights.

How to Avoid Burnout

Sheri Kirshenbaum, Ph.D., Clinical Director, Quartet Health:

A common concern among many working people right now is how to avoid burnout, especially during a time when there's less of a boundary than ever between "work" and "rest of life." Sheri explained that there is often an inherent tension between our desire to succeed on the job, and our overall well-being. It's essential that we learn to recognize the signs of burnout, which can include emotional and physical exhaustion, feelings of negativity, and reduced productivity. She offered some tips for avoiding burnout:

  • Acknowledge your experience. The first step is acknowledging a tremendous sense of pressure over work tasks and output. It's okay to not be okay, and to recognize that. Ignoring burnout will only make things worse, which could lead to more serious work performance issues or depressive symptoms.
  1. Start with the basics: People forget just how powerful self-care basics can be in helping us feel grounded. Get good sleep, eat healthy, and stay hydrated. Develop coping strategies that work for you.

  2. Reach out for help: If you're feeling overwhelmed, reach out for help. Talk to your manager or contact your EAP. Schedule an online therapy appointment. Call a friend to talk it out.

  3. Stay informed without "doomscrolling." We all want to stay informed, but Sheri advises against the all-too-common "doomscrolling." Set limits around how much news and commentary you are consuming, which is a first step to reducing anxiety.

  4. Evaluate your work routine. Create boundaries (physical if possible, but psychological in any case) between work and home life. Build in breaks to your day, focus on priority tasks, and take scheduled time away from work.

Steps to Cope with Race-Based Stress

Danielle Cottonham, Ph.D., Clinical Quality Lead, Lyra:

In addition to the pressures of burnout, we are seeing heightened awareness of, and stress over, racial injustice, and we may need ways to alleviate that. Danielle enumerated a few steps to take care of yourself in relation to these critical issues.

  1. Validate your response. For those who identify with people and communities being targeted either by direct or systemic racism, it's normal to experience numbness, anger and grief. Work to acknowledge what may be intense, contradictory and confusing feelings rather than suppress them.

  2. Knowledge is power. Being able to identify racism, and name it, as being traumatic is a powerful step.

  3. Connect with others. Make sure you're not just working from your own feedback loop. Talking with other people can help alleviate isolation. Danielle encouraged people to connect with others and find ways to participate in local activities and programs. The power of human connection is a huge part of coping --- and overcoming.

Actionable Ways to Be an Ally and Build Resilience

Joe Grasso, Ph.D., Clinical Director of Partnerships, Lyra:

Many people also want to understand how to be better allies, and actively anti-racist, but don't know where or how to start. Joe outlined steps on how to be an ally:

  1. Do the internal work. Before you can take actions to support others, understand your own biases and ways you could reflect on your identity and privilege.

  2. Educate yourself. Take advantage of all the resources available to learn more about actively becoming anti-racist.

  3. Take action. Action can take many forms such as joining support groups online or offline, making donations, and following political candidates whose positions on racial justice align with yours.

  4. Recognize the journey. Joe noted how important it is to understand that being an ally is a lifelong journey. It requires an ongoing commitment to challenge long-held beliefs and assumptions.

At the end of his talk, Joe offered a message of hope: Resilience isn't something we're naturally born with; it's learned. Here are three ways to build resilience.

  1. Start with self-compassion. When we face setbacks, we often criticize ourselves. Show yourself the kindness and compassion you would show to a friend or family member when you're going through a hard time.

  2. Lean toward optimism. Take a realistic assessment about where things are now instead of where you fear they will go. Don't assume the worst, and focus on the small positive steps you can take - the things that are in your control.

  3. Build social support. Having social support from others is a strong predictor of good mental health, and it's important to find ways to connect with other people. Be willing to reach out to others for support when you need it and let people know the specific ways they can support you, whether that's by offering an empathetic ear, providing advice, and giving you a helping hand.

All of these things take practice and patience to build. Now is a good time to lean towards empathy and compassion, and show our humanity. By taking these kinds of steps to avoid burnout, to practice good self-care in the face of race-based stress, to become a better ally for racial justice, and build resilience, each of us is stronger, and we'll be better together for weathering whatever life brings us.