Patients, Pets, and COVID Stress-Reduction

What’s happening – Since the pandemic began, there’s been a rush of people adopting dogs and cats for company. But does getting a pet really help relieve the loneliness and isolation caused by social distancing? And if so, should you recommend that your patients get a pet? Researchers in the UK investigated the impact of animal ownership during COVID-19 among close to 6,000 adults. Most respondents to their survey believed that having a pet during lockdown provided them with a source of emotional support.

Specifically, pet owners reported smaller declines in their mental health and fewer feelings of loneliness than non-pet owners. So, is Fido or Fluffy best? The type of pet didn’t seem to affect results. In addition, the human-animal bond was equally strong regardless of the species of the pet. This means pet ownership – no matter the furry friend adopted or rescued – may be beneficial.

However, it’s worth noting that respondents who had a stronger bond with their pet prior to the pandemic also had poorer mental health starting out. More research needs to be done to fully understand the relationship between pets and mental health.

The details – Read the full human-animal relationship study by Ratschen et al in PLOS One.

Why it’s complicated – The researchers point out that pet ownership can bring its own set of stresses, including challenges accessing pet food and veterinary care (not so easy during the pandemic), as well as worry over becoming ill and having no one to care for the pet.

The perspectives

 The conversation

  • @StopStigma_Now tweets: “Pets are incredibly beneficial to mental health: ‘isolation buddies’ are helpful during COVID-19 outbreak.”
  • @CASONiagara, which provides addiction services, tweeted: “COVID-19 ‘Pandemic pets’ reducing stress, boosting mental health” via thoroldnews.com
  • @ PriyaFlorence reported that “Contact with animals can provide similar mental health benefits to hugging, and also increases oxytocin. These are among the reasons pet therapy is used for people who are elderly or sick.”

In practice – Find out what strategies your mental health professional peers are using to manage COVID-19 stress.

More Practice Essentials

Peer-Approved Tips & Tactics

COVID and Mental Health: It’s Not Just Worry, It’s Fear

What’s happening – Whether you’re the one administering or receiving psychotherapy, you’re likely worrying more than you were at this time last year. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, uncertainty is striking fear into the heart of many individuals – precisely 53% of US adults said stress and worry over the coronavirus was affecting their mental health – a significant jump up from 32% last March, according to polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).

The latest numbers paint a picture of exactly how Americans are feeling the effects. For instance, 36% of respondents said they are having trouble sleeping, while 32% have found their eating habits have changed. In addition, 12% increased their alcohol and/or other drug use, and 12% said their stress is worsening already existing chronic health conditions.

Experts believe this array of negative mental and physical health effects is the result of the pandemic’s forced social distancing, isolation, and economic impacts.

The details – Read the full COVID-mental health impact KFF study.

Why it’s complicated – Fear of contracting COVID-19, coupled with social distancing, is making it difficult for people with existing mental illness and substance abuse disorders to access needed services.

The perspectives

  • A piece in the UK’s The Times explores why the second wave of COVID-19 has taken a deeper toll than the first one on mental health.
  • Spiked weighs the competing concerns raised by the pandemic, including the need for lockdown and the need to secure jobs and income.
  • A NEJM article offers advice to help different populations deal with the emotional impact of COVID-19.
  • A WHO study reveals that access to mental health services has been affected globally during the pandemic.

The conversation

  • @SandroClubhouse tweets: “Great work by the @KFF, highlighting the importance of reaching out during this crisis.”
  • @engAGEDCenter uses the KFF survey findings to remind people: “It’s time to pay attention to mental health of older adults because of increased social isolation and loneliness due to COVID19.”
  • @WellbridgeNY refers to the KFF findings, and emphasizes: “This is a matter of concern for #mentalhealth professionals as there is still much uncertainty ahead.”

In practice – Derek Richards, PhD, a research fellow at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Psychology and CSO at SilverCloud Health, a Boston-based digital mental health company, says there are ways that behavioral health professionals can help their patients better cope with the situation.

What makes the pandemic particularly stressful, he says, is that it’s hard to predict how things will develop – on top of this, individual circumstances are changing rapidly. “But rather than focusing on what they can’t control, Dr. Richards stresses that people make a point to recognize the things they can do and remind themselves that they still have power over their lives, even in these trying times.

“You can help your patients redirect their energy toward these things to help them deal effectively with this situation,” he says. “Also remind them that the pandemic will not last forever, and that although they may feel lonely, they are not alone. We are all in this together.”

Here, Psycom Pro’s Julie Kolzet, PhD, discusses how to help patients find new sources of meaning. And Paula A. Madrid, PsyD, talks candidly about how to respond to COVID traumas in the most effective way.

 

Medical Conferences: Women Need to Be Invited to the Planning Table

What’s happening – Despite the growth of women in the medical field, they continue to be under-represented at medical conferences – particularly in the role of speakers and panelists. Researchers explored gender makeup at 98 medical conferences across multiple specialties that were held in the US and internationally between March 2017 and November 2018. Their finding: female representation was only 31%.

Also worth noting is that males outnumbered women by a nearly 2:1 ratio when considering key conference management roles such as panelists, invited lecturers, and organizers on planning committees. The researchers also found a correlation between having females on the planning committee of a particular conference and having more females on panels and/or in speaking roles. Thus, one key to meeting gender balance may be to invite more women to participate in the earliest planning stages of the conference.

The details – Read the full gender and conference study by Arora et al in JAMA Network Open.

Why it’s complicated – A full 96% of medical conferences examined in the study had one or more all-male panels (termed #manels on social media), which calls attention to the need to be more deliberate when planning future conferences.

The perspectives

  • An earlier blog post in eMedEvents stresses the importance of addressing gender inequity at medical conferences, which “are not immune to an issue that has permeated the conference culture: gender inequity and gender bias. Since so many opportunities are given at a medical conference, it is crucial that they not be biased against women.”
  • A piece in MDEdge from last year reported that gender inequity is not uniform across all specialties. The authors pointed out that “the proportion of women speaking at medical conferences in the United States and Canada increased significantly between 2007 and 2017, while the proportion at surgical specialty conferences lagged noticeably behind…”
  • Medscape refers to another study published in Stroke that identified weak representation among females as invited speakers at the American Heart Association’s International Stroke Conference (ISC). Raising awareness about this issue prompted conference organizers last year to take steps to avoid inequity at future events.
  • Nature dove into the manel problem a few years back.

The conversation

  • @karimekalil tweeted: “Closing the #gendergap in Medicine is not simple, but starts with 1. Acknowledging the gap exists 2. Having women as role models and in power positions….”
  • @BJCA_Women_LTFT tweeted: “Proportion of female speakers at medical conferences < male. > 1/3 manels. Number of women on planning committees may help address gender inequities …” Not familiar with the term “manel”?
  • @takeleadwomen pointed out that even when women are invited speakers, they are not treated equally to men. “Two women doctors noticed a pattern when observing speakers at medical conferences – male doctors were intro’d as ‘Doctor X’ while women drs were often intro’d by their first names. Now why do you think that happens? … #taketheleadwomen #womeninleadership”

In practice – The American Psychiatry Association recently reported on the progress of its Task Force to Address Structural Racism throughout Psychiatry, which includes related discussions on gender balance in the field. Psycom Pro board member Danielle Hairston, MD, is on the Task Force. Also, in case you missed Psych Congress or AACAP this fall, our conference coverage includes panels featuring a balance of women and men.

 

Last Updated: Apr 20, 2021