Q&A: Emotional Well-Being in Pandemic Times

Friday, July 9, 2021

During Mental Health Awareness Month, Morgan Lewis sat down with Eric Webber, certified alcohol and drug counselor and senior clinical advisor for the Legal/Executive Professionals programs at Caron Treatment Centers, for a virtual firmwide discussion on the pandemic’s effect on behavioral health, including the challenges and opportunities it presented, how to manage anxiety related to the return to the workplace, and steps to take when seeking help managing behavioral health in pandemic times.

As someone who works with lawyers and other professionals, what do you see as the unique challenges and opportunities for lawyers and legal professionals when it comes to behavioral health during pandemic times?

In my experience, the challenges and opportunities for lawyers are often two sides of the same coin. For many, working remotely with no commute offered more time with their family and lent itself to walking the dog or taking time for themselves that may previously have not had. But for others – the lack of structure and accountability, combined with having to act as a teacher for children at home and losing specific supports – like the gym or hobbies – was a crushing blow. Unfortunately, that created the perfect storm for many people who may already have been struggling with mental health and/or substance use issues prior to the pandemic. But the good news is that we saw a lot of attorneys recognize that with no need to be physically at client meetings or in the courthouse – it was an opportunity to get more intensive help and learn how to take care of themselves.

How has the pandemic affected behavioral health overall? What kinds of changes are you seeing in your respective practices and in the challenges your clients are facing?

Overall, the pandemic has caused a significant spike in behavioral health issues. We’ve seen an increase in anxiety, depression, gambling, compulsive spending, pornography, and of course alcohol and other substance use. I believe that many people were struggling with these issues right below the surface and the pandemic acted as an accelerant. Daily drinking became the norm for many with Zoom cocktail hours and the ability to drink earlier in the day and more frequently with a heavier hand. Many of our patients faced the challenge of a lack of structure and accountability. There was no commute, so they didn’t have to worry about a DUI. If they wanted to drink during the workday, their colleagues wouldn’t see or smell it. However, the upside is that many professionals eventually sought help through telemedicine or sought residential treatment because it was easier to step away.

As a certified drug and alcohol addiction counselor, what trends have you observed during the pandemic as it relates specifically to substance misuse?

The statistics are really staggering when it comes to substance use and other unhealthy coping behaviors. For example, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that alcohol sales increased 54% nationally and 262% online. We are now hearing that more and younger people may be suffering from liver disease as a result. Likewise, opioid use rose exponentially – with 88,000 Americans dying from overdoses during the pandemic. Revenue from online gambling in New Jersey, for example, was 123% higher during the pandemic. We also know that pornography use increased as much as 61% in some countries.

What guidance do you have for someone who is considering seeking professional support for their behavioral health? How can a counselor/therapist help? How can someone start a conversation with a counselor/therapist and find the right fit?

I often tell people that finding the right therapist is a process. It’s important to find a licensed professional who is trained in the area where you need help. When you have a conversation – you can really take in how you feel about that interaction. For therapy to be effective, you must feel a sense of comfort and safety so you can be honest and vulnerable. If you don’t feel confident about the interaction, don’t give up. You many need to speak with a few people before you find the right fit. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) can also help with referrals for specific needs.

As pandemic restrictions and limitations lift, it’s possible many of us will have some anxiety and worry about that return to how life was before, or some version of it. What advice would you have for people for managing that transition?

I do think many people have anxiety about returning to life. Part of that stress is that if life was hectic before and the pandemic helped you slow down – do you have to go back to that unsustainable pace or can you adjust? It’s important for group leaders, supervisors, and coworkers to have a dialogue about what will work best and how do we empower a balance to prioritize well-being. Working with an EAP to offer a list of concrete resources to contact for support, self-care and to help process trauma related to the pandemic can help ease the transition.