COVID-19 Crisis Response – Podcast

By LifeStance Health on May 19, 2020

Dwight Thompson (00:00):

Hi, welcome to Reset Your Mindset by LifeStance Health. Myself, Dwight Thompson, and my cohost, Nicholette Leanza will bring you conversations with leading LifeStance Health professionals who will help guide you on your journey to positive mental health and wellbeing. At LifeStance, we believe in the three pillars of mental health, mental flexibility, mindfulness, and resilience.

Dwight Thompson (00:31):

Welcome, everyone. Today, myself, Dwight Thompson, and [Nicky 00:00:35] Leanza are joined by Dr. Omar Elhaj, the division director of special projects here at LifeStance. Kind of coming to you from a little bit different circumstances. The three of us are all remote and are joining one another to discuss what we are currently battling here as a society, which is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dwight Thompson (00:58):

Dr. Elhaj, welcome.

Omar Elhaj (01:01):

Thank you very much, Dwight and Nicky.

Nicholette Leanza (01:04):

Yes. Great. Great to have you.

Omar Elhaj (01:06):

Thank you.

Dwight Thompson (01:06):

Thanks for joining us. Dr. Elhaj, can you give some insight briefly into what exactly is the coronavirus, which everyone will be certainly aware of at this point?

Omar Elhaj (01:17):

The coronavirus virus disease is an infectious disease caused by a new coronavirus. It causes respiratory illness, like the flu with symptoms such as cough, fever, and in more severe cases, difficulty breathing. You can protect yourself by washing your hands frequently, avoiding touching your face, and avoiding close contact, which is defined as a three feet with people who are unwell.

Omar Elhaj (01:41):

Coronavirus spreads primarily through contact with an infected person when they cough or sneeze. It also spreads when a person touches the surface or an object that has the virus on it and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth. So what we could do to protect ourselves and help prevent spreading the virus to others is, again, washing our hands regularly for 20 seconds with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub, cover our nose and mouth with a disposable tissue or our flexed elbow when we cough or sneeze, avoid close contact, three feet or less with people who are unwell, and stay home and self-isolate from others in the household if we feel unwell.

Omar Elhaj (02:27):

That takes me to the issue of the physical social distancing that a lot of people talk about and complain about. It is really of a paramount importance that we all follow the guidelines of the CDC and the public health figures urging us to follow physical social distancing.

Dwight Thompson (02:47):

Dr. Elhaj, thank you very much for that insight. A lot of the things that you’re alluding to are going to be unprecedented for a lot of people, including us. The three of us are used to being together; and right now, we’re all in our respective spaces and trying to be mindful of that social distancing aspect and trying to stay remote as much as possible.

Dwight Thompson (03:10):

Nicky, in your role, certainly as one of our therapists here at LifeStance, what are some of the things that you are discussing with clients? What are some of the feelings that you are sensing that a lot of people are expressing to you?

Nicholette Leanza (03:25):

I think it’s been just an overall blanket of just anxiety, anxiety of the unknown. Lots of what ifs or how comes or how longs.

Nicholette Leanza (03:37):

For myself, it’s hard, because I can’t reassure. I too am in the same boat. I can’t say, “Oh, this will be over in a month.” I don’t know either. I think a lot of like blanket anxiety over the unknowns of this.

Nicholette Leanza (03:51):

A lot of people also struggling with just the social isolation of just having to be at home, especially for those who maybe live alone are especially having a hard time.

Nicholette Leanza (04:05):

Then on the other end, those maybe staying with their families, especially a family to them has been a little bit of a tense situation. So to be sequestered in their house with the very thing that’s causes them a lot of anxiety via their family has been an issue too.

Nicholette Leanza (04:19):

So there’s been lots of things that has come up with all this that isn’t a typical thing I usually navigate with people with therapy. It’s difficult.

Dwight Thompson (04:31):

Yeah. This is going to take some getting used to for everyone, and that’s why it’s important, though, that we do have these discussions and can be transparent about what we’re feeling, because everyone is feeling it. There is no rule book for this sort of thing. We don’t have necessarily a lot of history to base what we’re dealing with off of. So we’re kind of learning about this together.

Dwight Thompson (05:03):

Dr. Elhaj, you have certainly played an instrumental role into what we are doing here at LifeStance as a practice to address this coronavirus. We have taken some steps and some measures to reduce the spread of this virus and play our part in quote-unquote flattening the curve. Can you give us some insight into what LifeStance is doing to address the coronavirus?

Omar Elhaj (05:29):

Thank you, Dwight. It has been a team effort. Every one of us has contributed to the response to this very huge challenge. The area that I’ve been most involved in the past couple weeks has been our telehealth projects and ensuring that we all follow the CDC guidelines in terms of any potential exposure or infection.

Omar Elhaj (05:56):

In terms of the telehealth, as of just a couple of weeks ago, out of 350 providers across four states, we were only able to get about 10 providers interested in telehealth and set up and ready to go. As of now, I can confirm that we have about 300-plus providers across four states of all disciplines, including-

Nicholette Leanza (06:21):

Oh, wow.

Omar Elhaj (06:22):

… psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, therapists of all degrees able to deliver the care that our patients need through telehealth.

Dwight Thompson (06:33):

That is incredible.

Nicholette Leanza (06:34):

Yeah, that is really amazing.

Dwight Thompson (06:35):

Why is telehealth so important during this time?

Omar Elhaj (06:38):

Because it really allows our patients to get the care they need during these very challenging times, while at the same time following the social distancing guidelines, without having to expose themselves to any increased risk. And for our providers as well to be able to deliver the care that they are so good at without exposing themselves or anybody else to the higher risk of contracting coronavirus.

Dwight Thompson (07:06):

Absolutely. Sometimes, as with anything, the right decision is not always an easy decision. I know that as providers, we love being in the same space as our clients, and the clients love that as well. However, this is the decision that makes the most sense from a bigger picture.

Dwight Thompson (07:30):

What are some of the stigmas that might lie around telehealth and some of the things that people might be a little bit apprehensive with when it comes to giving telehealth a shot? What would you say to that person?

Omar Elhaj (07:42):

I tell to that person, “Give it a shot-

Nicholette Leanza (07:44):

I agree.

Omar Elhaj (07:44):

… and see for yourself.” I mean, as Nicky can attest to that, a lot of our therapists or psychiatrists who were not interested in telehealth or did not give it a shot because they thought it was less efficacious or less optimal to build a genuine rapport with a patient, right now they are seeing with their own eyes how actually you can develop the same level of warmth, the same level of connectedness with the patient. I’m going to actually let Nicky talk more about it since this is something new to her, and she can shed more light.

Omar Elhaj (08:25):

I mean, how has it been for you, Nicky?

Nicholette Leanza (08:28):

It’s been really good. In fact, in a lot of ways, I felt like I was able to kind of peek in more into the lives of my clients. Them actually being able to show me their pets that they love so much and show me things. Even working with adolescents, having them show me their room and things like that. So for me, it’s actually been really helpful as a nice connecting thing for us both, which was something really delightful for me to be able to do. So I really like this platform, and it does reach something that I wouldn’t be necessarily able to do if I was just in person with them in my office. To kind of be able to sit with them really in their home together, it’s really wonderful, for sure.

Dwight Thompson (09:09):

They’re no longer painting a picture for you. You have it there in real time.

Nicholette Leanza (09:15):

Yes, yes.

Omar Elhaj (09:15):

I agree with-

Dwight Thompson (09:16):

[crosstalk 00:09:16] cool.

Omar Elhaj (09:16):

… a hundred percent. It remind me, I think, of an example that I gave when we talked, the three of us the first time about tele-health, how you really get a glimpse into things that you would not have been able to. I think this is one of the things that we need to remind ourselves as individuals and society with the COVID-19 epidemic. There is always a silver lining. During those challenging times, you get to know the core of people. You can look at really what is important to us as human beings, as a society, and what is really not important. You see now people coming together across so many different paths of life, not necessarily physically, but virtually.

Omar Elhaj (10:06):

I was just reading a news story a couple days ago about a group of seniors who used to gather weekly for their sewing class close to Akron, Ohio. For the past two weeks now, they’ve been actually helping with repairing the surgical masks, the [crosstalk 00:10:26] surgical masks that-

Dwight Thompson (10:25):

Oh, that’s incredible.

Omar Elhaj (10:28):

… a local hospital was in need for. The American ingenuity and good will, I think, is manifesting so well during this crisis.

Dwight Thompson (10:39):

Yeah. I think our nation has proved time and time again, we kind of thrive under pressure. When we’re dealing with crises is really when I think I see us come together the most. So that’s incredible.

Dwight Thompson (10:51):

I think you bring up a good point. It’s easy to get caught up in some of the negativity that there certainly is with COVID-19 and this pandemic, but it’s important to, I think, be appreciative and be mindful of the fact that we do have these platforms to stay connected with our loved ones and our caregivers and our mental health providers. So there’s a lot to be thankful for from that standpoint. So I really appreciate you guys shedding some light into a couple of those things.

Dwight Thompson (11:19):

So Nicky, you and I were talking, along with Dr. Elhaj, about how important it is right now to take care of your own mental health and to protect yourself and find some things to allow you to feel a little bit more positive during this time. Can you just talk a little bit about that, about some habits that can start to be practiced during quarantine in this social distancing that we’re dealing with?

Nicholette Leanza (11:43):

Yeah, for sure. Let me throw out just a few of these here. I think one of the things that is key is still allowing yourself to be connected to those outside of your home. I think people have been very creative in maybe pulling up their friends and still doing board games via maybe Skype and things like that. I think it’s still so important that we are still connecting to those that we’re close to outside of our home.

Dwight Thompson (12:10):


Nicholette Leanza (12:11):

I think another key point too, is since we are all kind of made to stay in our homes, is to help us relieve our own boredom with stuff. I’ve heard from a lot of clients where they’re like, “Okay, I’ve cleaned everything I can clean. I’ve organized my closets. I’ve done this and that. Now, I don’t know what else to do.” So I think that’s what’s so key of getting in there and figuring out other things to keep yourself busy and moving forward.

Nicholette Leanza (12:39):

I have talked to people who have done virtual tours of museums online, or even doing other things that they wouldn’t usually do, like beginning that novel they keep saying they’ve been wanting to write or listening to new podcasts, things like that. I think it’s really the time to get to those things that we maybe didn’t have time to do before.

Dwight Thompson (13:00):

Yeah. No. That’s really important.

Omar Elhaj (13:02):

I think actually I was reading an article a couple days ago about a bookshop in England that actually has seen their sales go up 3000% in the past few weeks, because people now are getting more interested in reading books and especially the classics, not just [crosstalk 00:13:24] fiction.

Omar Elhaj (13:24):

So as I said again, I have no doubt that we will figure out ways to reestablish the rhythm in our lives and how to balance togetherness with aloneness. I mean, some of us who live in urban areas with a smaller square footage than others who live in suburbs, yeah, this has been a challenge. Even if you’re only two or three people in an apartment, it’s much more challenging to get confined and to respect other people’s space versus if somebody is living in a larger home. But it’s also forcing us to reexamine how sometimes we don’t spend enough time with each other. I mean, I don’t know. What is your experience, Dwight?

Dwight Thompson (14:14):

That’s a great point. Yeah, no, it’s funny. Nicky, you brought up the board game example. I personally have a story. Over the weekend, I FaceTimed with a couple of my family members in Chicago, and we played a board game just via FaceTime.

Nicholette Leanza (14:30):

Oh, that’s great.

Dwight Thompson (14:32):

It really was. It was a great time, and I think it’s a good time to try some new things. I think you brought up a good point, write that novel you said you were going to write. Utilize the outdoors. One thing that we probably don’t do enough, a lot of folks, is get outside and get moving, even if it is going for a long walk. You often hear about people wanting to get into running. Now’s as good a time as any now that gyms are closed. I certainly have been finding that the more time outside I have been able to spend, just the better I feel. It really has made me sort of re-examine where I spend a lot of my time and energy. Sometimes that is not with my loved ones and communicating with my loved ones. I’m trying to utilize the time that we have wisely. We can sort of waste it, or we can be mindful of putting it to good work.

Nicholette Leanza (15:22):

Which makes me think-

Dwight Thompson (15:22):

So I think you guys have brought up great points.

Nicholette Leanza (15:23):

Which makes me think of one of the things I’ve been talking with my clients about is use this time wisely. Use this time to also evolve yourself. Try new things, but also kind of go deeper into yourself, learn about yourself, gain more insight into yourself. I think that’s so important. Use this time to really discover yourself, I think is so key.

Dwight Thompson (15:47):

Yeah. Yeah. How often are we running into where there’s a duration of time where we’re told to stay indoors as much as possible? This is not going to happen often. Yeah, I think that there’s a lot that you kind of have to take it for what it’s worth and make the most of it.

Nicholette Leanza (16:08):

I definitely agree with that.

Omar Elhaj (16:09):

I agree, 100%.

Nicholette Leanza (16:09):

That’s for sure.

Dwight Thompson (16:13):

Sort of in conclusion, everyone, Dr. Elhaj, thank you so much for shedding light on the telehealth aspect of things. And Nicky, you’ve done a excellent job of talking a little bit about what you’re experiencing during sessions and how people are trying to manage their anxiety during this time.

Dwight Thompson (16:29):

In closing, over these coming weeks, what kind of advice would you give to people when it comes to addressing this pandemic and taking it sort of one day at a time? What would you say?

Omar Elhaj (16:42):

Well, I would start with please follow the CDC guidelines, heed to the recommendations and advice of the public health officials, and stay well and stay healthy. What do you think Nicky about what people should do in terms of trying to maintain their wellness?

Nicholette Leanza (17:07):

I’m going to add to that being compassionate, being compassionate to yourself, to others. It’s a time to reach out. I do agree what we were saying earlier about the US and how we tend to pull together in times of crisis. And this is just definitely one of those times for all of us to pull together. We’re all in this together,-

Dwight Thompson (17:25):

We sure are.

Nicholette Leanza (17:26):

… and not to forget that is so key.

Omar Elhaj (17:27):


Dwight Thompson (17:28):

Yeah. Thank you, guys. We are learning. It’s not even day by day. There’s some days where it’s hour by hour, we’re learning new information. We just have to continue to take it in stride. But I agree with you, Dr. Elhaj, to your earlier point. We will find some sense of normalcy in the upcoming months. It’s just a matter of time.

Omar Elhaj (17:49):

Absolutely. Stay well. Stay well.

Nicholette Leanza (17:50):

Yes [inaudible 00:17:53]. Thank you. Take care. Thank you.

Dwight Thompson (17:55):

Thank you, Dr. Elhaj.

Dwight Thompson (17:57):

I think our conversation today with Dr. Omar Elhaj left us with some pretty poignant takeaways. For me, I found the conversation around recognizing your anxiety during this time and understanding that it’s okay, and that we’re all going through this together as we battle this pandemic. We are all learning on the fly, and we’re all getting new information, information that we have not been privy to in the past. And so recognizing that it’s okay to feel a little bit uneasy, but that when we come together, it really does help us get through things like this.

Dwight Thompson (18:34):

Make the most of your time. I thought that was a really important point that Nicky continued to bring up, was you can either make the most of this time or sort of squander it. So try those new things, allow yourself to step out of your comfort zone a little bit. This is already uncomfortable for everybody as a society. So we have to give ourselves the courtesy to try new things and be patient with ourselves.

Dwight Thompson (19:02):

Lastly, what we are doing here at LifeStance as a practice with our telehealth initiative that Dr. Elhaj has played such an instrumental role in, is something to be very proud of. Us as an organization, we’re very proud that we are able to stay ahead of the curve. We would be remiss not to recognize the challenges of this pandemic. So the fact that we were able to implement some different type of services via telehealth goes a long way in both protecting our providers and protecting our patients.

Dwight Thompson (19:32):

Thank you guys for joining us. Until next time.

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