UC Berkeley professors discuss mental health amid coronavirus pandemic

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Three leading UC Berkeley psychologists discussed approaches to coping with the emotional side effects of the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream as a part of a campus virtual conversation series Friday.

The online video series, named “Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19,” includes discussions with leading experts from various disciplines — from epidemiology to economics, to computing and data — sharing their thoughts about the pandemic. On Friday’s livestream, UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof moderated a panel with Frank Worrell, a professor in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education; Sonia Bishop, an associate professor in the psychology department and member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute; and Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor and co-director of the Greater Good Science Center.

As of press time, about 8,000 people have watched the livestream.

“All of us have different levels of anxiety normally,” Bishop said during the panel. “Some people would be very used to experiencing anxiety and it may be worse (right now). For others, it may be the first time.”

The three scientists provided advice on how to deal with the anxiety and depression that people can face during a pandemic. For example, appropriately lowering self-standards, not watching the news before bedtime, checking in with children at fixed times, listening to music, finding three or four reliable interests and regularly looking outside can be effective coping approaches, according to Bishop, Worrell and Keltner.

Bishop discussed the widespread increase in anxiety among people. Part of the reason for the anxiety, according to Bishop, is a lack of precise estimates of coronavirus infection counts. She also emphasized the importance of protecting front-line workers, including those in health care, whose mental health states are easily influenced by traumas they face every day. According to Bishop, many front-line workers have expressed high levels of stress similar to what might be expected with “combat-related trauma.”

Worrell discussed children’s adaptability issues in new situations and expressed special concern for students with learning disabilities, who have lost learning support that was available before the pandemic.

“Over the longer term, if this does not go into the next year or something like that, I think the impact on learning — there will be a dip much like there’s a summer learning loss, but this will be back up when schools get back into session,” Worrell said during the panel.

Keltner argued that the pandemic will cause disparities among different classes and races. Many underprivileged children do not have laptops, which leads to a lot of difficulties in their studies, according to Keltner.

The panel also discussed four potential benefits of the pandemic, however: opportunities to donate to developing countries that need assistance, teach the next generations about altruism, review cultural weaknesses and magnify the importance of health care.

“This pandemic is revealing things we need to work on as a culture, and I’m very encouraged,” Keltner said during the event. “We’ve got a lot of hardships coming, but I’m encouraged about the conversations around poverty, inequity and race and how we fix that.”

Contact Joy Ma at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dcjoyma.