It’s something of an understatement to say that there’s a lot going on right now. A pandemic, a contentious and polarizing election season, issues of racial injustice flaring up all over the country — it can all be a little overwhelming. GBH Radio’s Craig LeMoult spoke with Dr. Michelle Durham, a psychiatrist at Boston Medical Center and a professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, about stress and anxiety during the pandemic. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Craig LeMoult: So what kind of issues have you been hearing from the patients that you speak with? Is there more anxiety out there than usual?
Dr. Michelle Durham: Yeah, I would say so. I think at Boston Medical Center in particular, where I have my clinical practice, we serve a largely lower socioeconomic status, so poorer folks who generally identify as Latinx or Black. They’re really feeling a lot of stress and anxiety and worry about the day-to-day things that are happening in their lives with two pandemics, one of racism and the other of COVID. And it’s really impacting whether they can have food on the table the next day, make their rent for the month. They’re facing issues of job loss and unemployment.
LeMoult: Everybody in the Boston Public School system is going remote, with the kids with the most need who had been in classes now back home again. Is there anything that you would recommend that can be done at a larger scale to try to help those kids and those families deal with being at home?
Durham: I think we’ve put a lot of pressure on ourselves to work at the same expectation that we did prior to COVID. And that goes for school for the kids, and I don’t think any of us can work at that exact same rate, especially for kids with special needs or that need extra support at school. So how do we give each other a little bit of a break, give each other some grace, if you will? Maybe if there were five assignments that typically happened on a school day prior to COVID, can we reduce that in some way?
I think it’s obviously a challenge for teachers, too, because they’re trying to figure out a new way to deliver information in a fun way over Zoom, and I understand that challenge for them, too. So I think it’s going to take work, obviously, on both sides. And for parents, hard as it may be, they need to make sure to take even just five minutes for themselves, because you’re always better for those around you when you’re feeling better.
LeMoult: All of these issues that we’ve been talking about are happening at the same time as a really contentious, really polarized presidential election. How is the election impacting all of us on top of everything else?
Durham: The election is stressful and anxiety-provoking for many people. There’s been so much racism, xenophobia, homophobia, things being said at the national level about people that has felt like bullying in a way. And so it brings about like, am I going to be OK, come November? Is this election going to pan out to a safer world where I’m going to be able to have health care, where we’re going to try to get COVID under control in a way that we can have a national response?
And then, last but definitely not least, I think also about who I see in my clinics. Racism has been a pandemic within a pandemic. It’s disproportionately affected many of the families I serve. And so that’s all very worrisome and leads to lots of stress. You get the stress on a day-to-day basis with COVID, and then there’s also the stress of racism and discrimination that many folks are feeling, whether they identify as LGBTQ, whether they identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color, or for women, when it comes to having certain rights potentially taken away.
So it’s a stressful time. I think we’re all feeling that weight of what might happen come this election.
LeMoult: Just like any of us, you’re impacted by all of these different issues that we’re facing all at the same time. And on top of that, you listen to all the challenges and stresses and anxieties of your patients on a daily basis. How are you doing?
Durham: Thanks for asking. I’m doing OK. I think it’s a mix of things. I’m doing some of the things I’ve said today. The weather’s been nice in Boston. I’ve been doing as many outside activities as possible, wearing my mask. There’s been opportunities to meet up in a park with friends at a distance, have some food outside and just talk. And so those sort of social connections, while the weather has been good, I’ve been doing.
And then last but not least, with my colleagues that are in this field that I’m in, being able to kind of talk to them about what we’re all experiencing and almost having our own group therapy, in a sense, because obviously us talking as a community is different than talking to other friends who are not in this field, and so they understand at another level what we’re all dealing with.
But I have those same worries and fears. I’m doing my part in figuring out how do we get out the vote and really just make sure that we vote so that we all know that we’re all valued here, because I think we all deserve happiness and joy in our life. And so making sure that we all get out the vote has been one of my priorities as well. So finding those ways, as I’ve described, of disconnecting, not being on Twitter or watching the news, and just doing something that’s fun as much as possible is how I’ve been able to manage thus far.