Submitted by: Patrick McNamara, president & CEO of Palm Health Foundation
“Taking care of my brain is as important as taking care of the rest of my body.” This simple mantra has been at the core of our Brain Health Initiative in South Florida for the past two years. Now, with the spread of COVID-19 around the globe, this mantra has taken on a whole new meaning and urgency for all of us.
As the CEO of Palm Health Foundation, a local community foundation for health, and as a clinical social worker, I have had the good fortune of working with some of the top neuroscientists and mental health advocates in the U.S. Brain health is our common cause. For far too long, we have treated the body and the brain as if they are separate. There are various reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that the human brain is the most complex organ in the world. Our understanding of the rest of the body has always outpaced our understanding of the brain. This is most clearly evident in the division between our healthcare system and mental health system, where mental health research and treatment are chronically starved of resources to meet the demand.
Fortunately, over the past three decades, there has been an explosion of research and advances in understanding the human brain. We’ve learned more about this most complex organ during this short period than in the history of the modern world. Yet there has also been a growing recognition of rising mental health challenges and brain disorders that require innovative solutions grounded in our growing knowledge of brain health. The COVID-19 pandemic is now dramatically magnifying these challenges and accelerating the need for innovative solutions.
So how exactly can we take better care of our brains? We’ve learned from neuroscience that our brains are much more resilient than we previously thought, i.e. neuroplasticity, and that there are six fundamental pillars of good brain health. They are sleep, nutrition, physical activity, stress management, social relations, and cognitive activation. Simply put, we can all take better care of our brains by adopting daily practices that support these pillars. For example, we can commit to one or more of the following new habits: getting at least 7 hours of sleep, eating more fruits and vegetables, doing 30 minutes of physical exercise, practicing mindfulness or deep breathing, staying in contact with friends and family, and reading a book for 30 minutes.
As part of our Brain Health Initiative, the foundation created an annual month-long campaign called Train the Brain that encourages all South Florida residents to begin adopting these practices. Changing our behavior is never easy, but our behavior can and does change our brains. Just like our physical health, consider our brain health to be on a continuum from wellness to illness. And just like our physical health, where there are many factors beyond our control, there are also many factors within our control to improve our mental wellness. With the pandemic causing unprecedented disruption in our lives, we are profoundly disoriented by the many changes beyond our control. That’s why we could all benefit from focusing on what we can control.
I’ve read that the COVID-19 lockdown is the world’s biggest psychological experiment and we are all participants.
“Unfortunately, we already have a good idea of its results. In late February 2020, right before European countries mandated various forms of lockdowns, The Lancet published a review of 24 studies documenting the psychological impact of quarantine…. In short, and perhaps unsurprisingly, people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms of psychological stress and disorder, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.”
World Economic Forum, “Lockdown is the world’s biggest psychological experiment – and we will pay the price,” Dr. Elke Van Hoof, April 9, 2020
Mental health experts have also begun to raise alarms about the need to prepare for the “knock-on” effects of the pandemic, including rising rates of depression and suicidal behavior. Unfortunately, there is a direct correlation historically between rising unemployment and suicide. Add to this our current general level of stress as we try to navigate the vast information ecosystem, with often conflicting messages from public health, political, and economic authorities. The sheer magnitude of uncertainty is highly stressful. And while our science and medical experts offer our best hope for solving the riddles of the pandemic, we are left in the meantime to try to make sense of all this for ourselves. Well, sense-making is a primary function of the human brain. No wonder many of us have started to feel “brain fog” and exhaustion! So what are we to do?
First, in our personal lives, we can distinguish between the things we can change from the things we cannot. Using the six fundamental pillars, we can change our daily practices to better support our brain health. These practices can help us maintain our mental wellness and cope with the psychological impacts of quarantine. While these practices are not a panacea for preventing psychological distress or mental illness, they certainly build resilience. As the survivor of a brother’s suicide and someone who has dealt with major depression, I can assure you that these practices work for me, particularly at this time. It is also within our control to intentionally be kind and compassionate to ourselves and others, particularly to those who are suffering more severely than we are. Many studies have validated the positive effects of kindness on brain health, both for the giver and the receiver.
Second, times of massive disruption are also times for breakthrough innovation. Now more than ever is the time to innovate for brain health, which is why our foundation launched a Brain Health Innovation Fund. Our mental health system was sorely inadequate prior to COVID-19 and in need of innovation. Let’s accelerate the move toward telehealth and online assistance by overhauling the tech infrastructure of our mental health delivery system. This will enable us to dramatically ramp up our capacity for targeted outreach, screening, and treatment to our most vulnerable populations at-risk of developing brain health disorders, including our healthcare workforce on the front lines of the pandemic. We can also invest more in neuroscience research and innovative methods to apply and share what we are learning. I hope to share next year how we have started applying an advanced form of artificial intelligence in South Florida on both of these fronts.
Finally, we can all take a deep breath. We are a remarkably resilient species. Though it will take some time, we will thrive beyond the current pandemic. I have found that we are at our best when we both appreciate our gifts and relentlessly focus on what we can change for the better. Each of us has a role to play in improving our brain health. Don’t let COVID-19 stop you from playing yours.