Give food, check in on a neighbor: Small acts of service can curb depression this pandemic Thanksgiving

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“Doing things for others is enormously powerful to us and of course to others. … It could be something simple and safe, like checking on a neighbor or bringing somebody food or just listening to a colleague who seems to be having a hard time,” says Dr. Michael Wilkes. Photo by Pixabay.

This Thanksgiving will look significantly different due to the coronavirus pandemic.  

People may still have a dinner that mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But many won't be having it in person with extended family and friends. Instead, they’re spending the holiday with their core household, and in some cases, that may mean dinner for one.  

Dr. Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, says much of the strategy for fighting the pandemic has involved limiting human contact, but that often comes with loneliness and feelings of isolation: 

“There's no question that COVID has made isolation much worse. But loneliness and its manifestations of addiction and domestic violence and child abuse and anxiety and depression have been growing worse in our society for a long time.

As people and families particularly play a smaller role in people's lives, people have been left on their own to deal with personal and interpersonal pain. The estimates are that about 20% of people, before COVID, struggled with loneliness. Just by comparison, that's more people than struggle [sic] with heart disease or diabetes. 

And then along comes COVID. And that number has gone way up. 

People need social connections, we need each other. When loneliness lasts for a long time and it becomes chronic, it impacts our health and leads to depression and chronic biologic inflammation, and to the kinds of maladaptive behaviors we see like rising rates of addiction violence.”

KCRW: For a lot of people these days, there's a sense of having to choose between physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing. There’s a tradeoff. Are there things we can do to counteract loneliness? 

Wilkes: “Suffice it to say, service, doing things for others is enormously powerful to us and of course to others. I don't just mean like working in a food bank or a homeless shelter. It could be something simple and safe, like checking on a neighbor or bringing somebody food or just listening to a colleague who seems to be having a hard time. These small acts give our life meaning. Thanksgiving and the entire holiday season can be super lonely. … So this is a great time to engage, albeit safely.”

Are you seeing increases in depression due to COVID? 

“We are. Depression is a very specific medical condition with precise clinical criteria for diagnosis. A recent study in JAMA involving about 6500 Americans found that depressive symptoms are three times higher today than they were a year ago. It also found that those with lower incomes and those with higher stressors in their lives, regardless of income, are at higher risk for depression. 

We've known that after social traumas, things like hurricanes and Ebola and financial recessions and civil unrest, people around the world report increase in symptoms, consistent with mental illness. And we also know that mental illness, consequences of traumatic events are not evenly distributed across populations. 

Another sort of interesting subpopulation are health care workers. And studies suggest that among health care workers who are exposed to people with COVID-19, about 50%, report symptoms of depression, reduced sleep and perhaps greater levels of anxiety.

Again, the flip side, on the protective side, people who are married have a lower rate of depressive symptoms compared to those who are widowed or divorced or separated or are never married. It is a problem and it's a growing problem.” 

If someone is wrestling with depression, can they still get help these days, considering all the demands on the health care system?

“Yeah, I think it depends on where you are. And obviously in our society, it depends on what kind of insurance you have. The health needs for mental health are enormous. We don't have the resources, meaning the therapists to meet the demand. And we have to be careful because the answer for these people is not necessarily to throw them on medications. 

How much of the depression we're seeing is situational and will improve once we get a vaccine and life returns to normal — is not really clear.

… Remember that even in these crazy times, there's lots to be enormously thankful for. And we can express our gratitude by listening and engaging with others. Being authentic, practicing mindfulness, being passionate because that leads us to be motivated, finding purpose, and remembering to say thank you with meaning.”

Credits

Guest:
Michael Wilkes - Host of 'Second Opinion'

Host:
Chery Glaser

Producers:
Darrell Satzman, Amy Ta