UNLV professor shares method to improve mental health during COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Tan counseling health care workers overseas
Posted at 1:28 PM, May 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-22 16:56:02-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Pandemic pressure and stress are being blamed for people’s declining mental health. Recent studies have found more than 40% of Americans fall into that category and the impacts may linger long after COVID-19.

13 Action News recently sat down with Dr. Rhigel Tan, an assistant professor at UNLV, who's been helping front-line healthcare workers cope with stress overseas. Dr. Tan believes his method could benefit many Americans here at home as well.

"What I’m seeing is more mental health problems arising. You have anxiety, depression, people can’t sleep. It is a normal reaction in an abnormal situation, felt by a normal person," said Dr. Tan.

As a registered nurse practitioner, Dr. Tan has the tall task of treating people's mental health during a global pandemic. His goal is to normalize their experience, and he's actually having a lot of success overseas.

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Using a strategy called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (C.I.S.D.), Dr. Tan has been helping health care workers who are working on the front lines in Cebu City in the Philippines.

"These front liners, doctors, paramedics, nurses see a lot of difficult cases and even death, a lot of death. And slowly and subtly, [they] didn’t realize that it has an impact on them psychologically," said Dr. Tan.

He's been hosting virtual meetings on Zoom, facilitating conversations between groups of health care workers so they can connect and talk openly about the trauma they're seeing and experiencing all around them.

"It can affirm to them that what they felt, others have felt too. It’s not only unique to them. And that, together, they find each other support, and then normalize, 'what I experienced is the same as what you experienced,' and then grow from there," said Dr. Tan.

Dr. Tan chose to help health care workers in the Philippines, partly because it's his own country of origin, but also because he knows there's a lot of stigma there surrounding mental health.

"Among Asian populations, especially in the Philippines, mental health is very taboo or there is stigma attached to it in reaching out," said Dr. Tan.

But he believes the C.I.S.D. method can have broad success stateside, too, not only for nurses, but Americans everywhere who are feeling alone and overwhelmed.

"Seek support. It doesn’t need to be professional right away. Your friends, your family, somebody you trust. Talk to them about what you experience," said Dr. Tan.

And if that's not enough and you're experiencing prolonged anxiety and depression, Dr. Tan is trying to eliminate the stigma that can come with seeking professional help.

"If you experience those, do not hesitate to express it out. Seek out help. Seek out consult. Talk about it. It is not something you can hide in yourself and it will just go away. It is something that can be helped though, so seek help and there is help. If we seek help for a physical problem, we should seek help also for an emotional problem. There’s nothing to be ashamed about," stressed Dr. Tan.

Dr. Tan is keeping records and collecting data on his therapy sessions in the Philippines to see if it can be applied worldwide. The goal is to develop a better global approach to mental health if and when we’re ever faced with another pandemic.