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Health Report: Dr. Venezia on mental health in Fairbanks amid the pandemic

Published: Oct. 27, 2020 at 4:11 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - As we near the end of the year, days grow shorter and nights grow colder. Maintaining a healthy mental wellbeing can be a challenge through the Alaskan winter, even in the best of times. With the added complications of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year may pose particular mental health challenges.

Dr. Vanessa Venezia, Psychologist and Medical Director for Optum Alaska shared her professional insight on how the COVID pandemic is impacting mental health in our community, and some steps we can take to manage mounting stress.

“I think It’s fair to say that the pandemic has impacted all of us, that universally all of us have been surprised to see how things have unfolded over the past several months. It’s impacted all of us, just to differing degrees. I think one of the factors that helps determine how it’s impacted is the level of support people are able to put around themselves, as well as the coping strategies that people have developed in order to deal with this unusual amount of stress. People that have already been struggling are likely to struggle more. This time has been challenging for all of us, and it’s not uncommon for people to begin to notice more symptoms. Those that have already been diagnosed with mental health disorders may see an increase or an uptick in the symptoms that they have already experienced. Those that have not formally been diagnosed with mental health disorders are struggling, and they may have also developed a new condition," said Venesia.

Maintaining personal mental health requires recognizing and identifying unhealthy behavior so that it can be modified. Dr. Venesia shared some common signs and symptoms of too much stress and anxiety.

“In general I like to think about looking overall at your body and your personal health system. So how are things functioning? What is your sleep like? Are you having a desire to sleep more than usual or are you having a harder time falling asleep or staying asleep? How has your appetite been impacted? Are you noticing that you aren’t as hungry as usual, or maybe you’re more hungry and you’re using food as a coping strategy? Look at behaviors and habits that you previously engaged in. If you were someone who likes to exercise, has that changed? Are you doing things that you previously enjoyed less often. Are you engaging in habits that maybe aren’t so healthy more often than you should, and by that I’m referring to substances and things that people sometimes lean on when they’re not doing as well as they have previously," said Venesia.

Once one or more symptoms have been identified, some steps can be taken to manage these feelings so they don’t turn into something more serious.

“The first thing again is to recognize when stress is beginning to have a negative impact on your health. When you start to recognize that, I think it’s important to seek professional help, and there’s a variety of ways to get help in our community and across the state. Often times the first line of care is going to Primary Care and seeking a medical provider, and then being referred to Behavioral Health if necessary," said Venezia.

Maintaining stress and anxiety control in a household family dynamic carries its own particular challenges.

“It’s really important to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible, so really focus on what those healthy behaviors are -- getting adequate rest, really trying to keep things consistent which I know is hard especially for families who have kids at home who would ordinarily be going to school, keeping a consistent bed time even for the adults, and making sure that your body is getting the rest that you need," said Venezia.

The simple lack of available sunlight in Alaska this time of year is something to consider when devising strategies to combat declining mental health.

“I know our weather is starting to change here in Fairbanks, and it’s getting cold and snowy, but really take opportunities particularly when it’s daylight to get outside, make some Vitamin D if you can, and really just try to stay active -- really just engaging [in] those positive healthy behaviors. If you also notice that there’s an activity that you’re engaging in that makes the stress worse, such as you’re obsessively watching the news or watching the counts, begin to step away from some of those behaviors because if it’s making you feel worse it probably isn’t doing good things for you," said Venezia.

For immediate psychological assistance, the Careline in Alaska is available 24 hours a day at 877-266-HELP with professionals ready to assist anyone in a state of crisis.

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