Dr. Anthony Gallo, psychiatrist in private practice in North Kingstown, tells our reporter Alex Nunes that anxiety was the most obvious symptom at the beginning of the pandemic, but that’s evolved over time.

Transcript:

GALLO: I think that now what we're seeing is much more depression that's coming on. I think that the length that the pandemic has gone on is really becoming a grind for many people now, with the increase in social distancing that's required because of the increase in numbers. There is the component, of course, of the darker months leading to a decrease in daylight; the colder months, of course, leading to a decrease in people going outside and being active in general. So I think all of these factors are really playing into each other, sort of becoming a perfect storm for people to have a worsening of their depression.

NUNES: Because people, by nature, are social beings. They need to be around other people to feel right? 

GALLO: Yes, I actually just read Dr. Vivek Murthy’s book on the importance of being amongst other people. It was just released this year. And a fact that he cites is that social isolation and loneliness have as much health impact as smoking about three-quarters of a pack of cigarettes a day, which is a pretty profound statement on how much we really do need to be around other people. Fortunately, we have telephone and video conferencing methods via FaceTime or Zoom or otherwise. And I've been encouraging people as much as possible to set up regular time with their friends and loved ones, and to kind of get into the habit of doing it. 

NUNES: There's a lot right now that feels beyond our control. What kind of effect does the loss of control brought on by the pandemic have on people? 

GALLO: It can certainly bring on depression. What I've been telling people regularly is to focus on what they can control, and what they can control is their actions and their attitude in the here and now. We can control whether we distance. We can control whether we use masks appropriately, being regularly in touch with loved ones, getting regular exercise, good sleep, minimizing excess alcohol intake. And when I say about the attitude, I think that's also extremely important. The president has turned not wearing a mask—he's been framing it in the context of expressing our personal liberties. But what I've been trying to help my patients understand is that mask wearing, and social distancing, is an act of altruism and act of love. And many patients are asking me now, “Dr. Gallo, when am I gonna see you next?” And I say, “When we're immune.” And I joke with them: “I don't want to kill you.” But in some ways, I'm not joking, because I'm very serious about it. I don't want to be responsible for giving this to anyone. 

NUNES: I think, if you take that approach too, you could look at it as something that would connect people to some greater good that probably could give you more of a sense of a connection to other people that you might be missing at this time. 

GALLO: Of course. All the great periods in American history are periods where there are shared sacrifices. Certainly like during World War II. People got together and had all different sorts of drives for materials, such as metals and food drives and planting Victory Gardens. And all of that bonded us together very much as a society. 

NUNES: Do you have patients who are first responders at hospitals? And, if you do, what impact are you seeing on them? 

GALLO: Frankly, it's devastating for many of my patients. I have friends who are physicians who are working very much in the front line of the hospitals, who are saddened by having to care for people who may not have taken this disease seriously, or knowing that a loved one may not have taken this disease seriously. I'm seeing nurses who have worked on the frontlines of this now who have developed symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, because they were put into very difficult circumstances having to care for patients, having to help those patients say goodbye to loved ones over FaceTime. The problem is—what are we all doing individually to support these individuals? If I'm going to ask a nurse to spend hours a day in a room with a COVID patient fully masked up and geared up, I think it's the least that we could do to wear a mask and make sure we socially distance so we don't put those first responders and frontline workers in harm's way unnecessarily. 

NUNES: One thing that I've noticed this year is it does seem that people are more willing to say, “I'm feeling anxious, I'm feeling stressed, or I'm feeling down” more so than they did last year or prior to the pandemic. I'm wondering if that's something that you've noticed.

GALLO: I certainly think a lot of the stigma around mental health issues and treatment has been removed by this. And I think it's a lot easier for people to look around and say, “Wow, we are all having a hard time.” And I think that more people are reaching out for help. And I do hope that that will be a lasting impact from this year.

NUNES: Dr. Anthony Gallo psychiatrist in private practice in North Kingstown, thanks very much for speaking with me. 

GALLO: Thank you very much for having me.

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org.