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IN IT TOGETHER: Providing mental health support during the pandemic

Posted May 6th, 2020

IN IT TOGETHER: Providing mental health support during the pandemic

It’s the face-to-face interactions with many of her colleagues and patients that Dr. Maxine Lewis misses most while working during the pandemic.

“It’s the difficulty of not being able to connect with some people in person,” says Dr. Lewis, the Joint Chief of Mental Health and Addictions for Niagara Health and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. “I do really miss that.”

Dr. Lewis, who assumed her Joint Chief role last year and has practiced as a psychiatrist for nearly 25 years, is part of the leadership team at both organizations that prepared the programs for the pandemic and ensured patients continued to receive quality care.

Describe your role in preparing the Niagara Health Mental Health and Addictions program for the pandemic? And what changes were made?

My role at Niagara Health has involved working closely with our Director Barb Evans, Deputy Chief Dr. Neeraj Shukla, EVP Linda Boich and the Mental Health and Addictions management team in planning how we were going to deliver services during the pandemic. An example is how we very quickly switched our outpatient programming to videoconferencing and telephone visits, rather than face-to-face visits to protect our patients and staff. On the inpatient side, we closed a mental health unit to make space for a potential surge of medical inpatients with COVID at the St. Catharines Site. Some patients who were on the unit were moved to other inpatients units, we safely discharged others and we worked closely with our community partners to make sure people are connected to services in the community.

How has your role changed during the pandemic?

The most significant change is that everything has moved to virtual meetings, so I’m spending a lot of my day on Zoom or teleconferences on the administration side, attending a lot of planning and strategic meetings related to COVID for both organizations. On the clinical side, I see my patients (in the community) once a week, so I’m doing virtual visits (videoconferencing) and phone check-ins with them.

What has it been like using videoconferencing or telephone calls to provide care to your patients?

It’s going quite well because many of them like the fact they don’t have to travel to see us and they can be in the comfort of their own home. For some patients, it’s convenient and it’s much more comfortable for them and they like connecting with us that way. For mental health as a whole, however, it’s a bit of a challenge because not all patients have access to the Internet and not all patients have a cellphone, so it’s been difficult for us to connect with everybody. We’ve been trying to reach out to those patients through their family doctor, if they have one. We are still seeing some patients in the community in person and some are coming to the Emergency Department. We are hoping that we will be able to see patients safely in person soon as the list of patients waiting for face-to-face care is growing.

How has the pandemic impacted you personally?

One of the challenges my husband and I have is that our university-aged children are now back living with us, which means that the fridge is always empty. It’s been good having my daughter and son home, but I’ve been working long days the last eight weeks so I have not seen very much of them. Overall, it’s a tough situation. You’re worrying about your colleagues and patients because we’re all dealing with this. My husband is also a physician, so I worry about him, too.

Describe working with your team?

I’ve been so impressed with our Niagara Health mental health team and how well they’ve worked together to make sure our patients get the best care. They have been very open to the challenge of doing things in a new way. I’ve been really impressed by the suggestions that people have made about how we can do things better. Everyone has been flexible in trying new things, and if they don’t work, suggesting other ways of doing things.

What coping strategies can you offer people during the pandemic?

It’s natural that people are feeling more anxious during these times. Here are a few tips to help:

  • Identify what it is you’re worried about and ask if it is under your control or not. Focus on the things you can control.
  • Keep to a routine. Wake up at the same time each day, eat well and get a good night’s sleep.
  • Get fresh air: Go for a walk or try another form of exercise.
  • Do breathing exercises: Put a hand on your stomach and take a deep breath in for four seconds and breathe out for four seconds.
  • Chronicle moments of hope and gratitude. Consider keeping a gratitude journal and write the things for which you are grateful. It will help you focus on the good in your day.
  • Limit your exposure to negative stories about the pandemic and get your information from reliable sources. Devote a certain amount of time each day to those stories, but then read good-news stories that bring a smile to your face. Laughter is good medicine for the soul.

Niagara Health System