How primary care doctors are helping patients manage their mental health
As a primary care physician, Dr. Miller is often the first point of contact for a patient who’s seeking professional help for feelings of anxiety or depression.
“One thing that makes family medicine unique is that it allows for a broad array of interactions. The practice is old-fashioned in the sense that we are truly counted on to understand everything,” Dr. Miller says.
COVID-19 brought unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety to patients, some of whom have never dealt with those concerns. Dr. Miller explains, “Almost daily, I encounter patients, high-functioning people, who are unclear as to how to define the issue because they’ve never dealt with something like this. They have symptoms like daily chest pain, they’re up all night, unable to sleep, and it’s because of stress.”
Dr. Miller says he noticed a few major factors in 2020 that seemed to play a role in increasing levels of anxiety and stress in his patients. The first was fear of the unknown.
“None of us like not knowing what is coming next, and mixed messages from healthcare professionals about the pandemic created stress for many,” Dr. Miller says. He further explains that, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a tremendous amount of data going out in different directions.
“It was a time of uncertainty, and patients looked to doctors to give them answers when they didn’t necessarily have the right ones.”
Finally, Dr. Miller describes the blurring of professional and family life as a major cause of stress among people who usually worked outside the home. He suggests creating a commute to make sure work and home time don’t blend together.
“When we lost our commutes, we lost the ability to separate a bad day at work from our home life. You finish up a stressful day at work and then automatically have to move into homework and bedtime,” Dr. Miller says. “A walk a few times around the block before coming into the house helps to create that separation.”
It turns out he was on to something, as a Wall Street Journal article published in January 2021 detailed the benefits of creating a fake commute to separate work and home life.
With COVID-19 vaccines now widely available and most states eliminating restrictions around wearing masks and social distancing, Dr. Miller says the struggle lies in reversing some of the bad habits developed during the months of social isolation.
“Here we are, a year later, and the negative habits that we’ve worked on for a year, like drinking every night of the week and unhealthily snacking throughout the day, have become a lifestyle. You have to actively work to reverse those habits,” Dr. Miller says.
Primary care physicians can help undo those negative lifestyle trends post-pandemic by addressing the mental concepts behind them. Dr. Miller says collaborative care programs, like the ones offered at GBMC, help immensely.
“[They] allow primary care doctors to manage patients’ anxiety in the ways they feel appropriate, while referring them to therapists that we work hand-in-hand with to review the case and give recommendations.”
This treatment plan allows Dr. Miller to help long-time patients work past mental obstacles and greatly improve their quality of life.
“Everyone is desperate for answers, some degree of consolation,” he says. “We [in primary care] are the main point of contact, and we have to make sure patients get the help they need.”
Get more information about mental health treatment and get started with a primary care provider.