OMA Spotlight on Health

Coronavirus Q&A Part 3 with Dr. Frank Sommers

April 17, 2020 Ontario Medical Association Season 1 Episode 15
OMA Spotlight on Health
Coronavirus Q&A Part 3 with Dr. Frank Sommers
OMA Spotlight on Health
Coronavirus Q&A Part 3 with Dr. Frank Sommers
Apr 17, 2020 Season 1 Episode 15
Ontario Medical Association

Part 3 of our special COVID-19 episodes answering patient’s questions. Featuring Dr. Frank Sommers, a Toronto psychiatrist, on the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health.

For more information please visit

Show Notes Transcript

Part 3 of our special COVID-19 episodes answering patient’s questions. Featuring Dr. Frank Sommers, a Toronto psychiatrist, on the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health.

For more information please visit

OMA Podcast Episode 15: Coronavirus Q&A with Dr. Frank Sommers

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Voice Over: In this podcast, the Ontario Medical Association looks at current health issues that are on everyone’s mind. Spotlight on Health gives you the straight talk. We’re Ontario’s doctors and your health matters to us. 


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Anne Marie Flanagan: I’m Anne Marie Flanagan, the Director of Earned and Social Media at the Ontario Medical Association.


Dr. Frank Sommers: Hi, I’m Dr. Frank Sommers, a psychiatrist with the University of Toronto Department of Psychiatry, and also the founding chair of the Section of Disaster Psychiatry within the Canadian Psychiatric Association.


Flanagan: Now I know fear and anxiety about a disease or a virus can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions, in everybody really, adults and children alike. So what would be your advice to people in trying to take care of their mental health during this time?


Dr. Sommers: Well, it is very important to keep a close eye on our mental health and our spirits, especially because this virus, really, is not having a direct physical effect on most people, but there is a great amount of unprecedented fear due to the unprecedented nature of this attack on all of us. 


And it's important to remember that, all of us, we're all in this together. This virus doesn't discriminate. 


There are some important elements. First of all, we have to be aware that our psychological state will be impacted by the major change in our lives’ routines. So this change, for those who have never experienced it before, really causes a challenge. 


On top of that, of course, there's the issue of being in close quarters with members of your immediate family. So this poses extra challenges for us. 


It's important that we cool our brain, and one of the ways we can do this is by becoming much more mindful about the information that we take in. 


We also have to be very mindful that, especially at times like this, we have to maintain our regular eating, ideally with reasonable nutrition practices, also regular sleep, hygiene, and getting some exercise. 


We also need to be aware that relaxation is an activity that actually can boost our immune system. So, dedicate a time to relax and you basically allow your mind just to drift. 


And that can be also liberating from the confines of our immediate environment.


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Flanagan: There’s been some discussion around the initial language we used with social distancing, and now we're moving to talk about that people should be physically distancing but staying socially connected because we really want to make sure that people aren't isolating themselves socially—they're getting the support that they need. How would you recommend that people do this, and why is it so important?


Dr. Sommers: We really need to recognize that the words we use are very important. How we speak and how we think has a profound effect on how we feel. So in my view, whenever we use the word “social isolation,” it almost is like solitary confinement and it has a bad connotation. 


What exactly we want to achieve is physical separation, or physical distancing, so that the virus doesn't have a free ride between you and the next person. And they can easily achieve that by simply keeping a distance of about between 1 and 2 metres from the other person.  But we’ve got to be aware of that, that that virus likes to jump. 


So, physical distancing is what you want. However, on the other hand, in fact we want increased social connectedness. So, just because we’re physically obliged to stay separated, that doesn't mean that we need to maintain social isolation. Quite the contrary. 


We should be employing all the modern digital means to utilize—so there are phone calls we can make, there’s the internet connections we have—so we should be utilizing the relative free-time opportunities for increased social connectedness.


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Flanagan: What about people who live alone? How can they make sure that they take care of their mental health and stay connected?

Dr. Sommers: Well, this is an opportunity for all of us to practice good citizenship. It is, I think, very important for, not only the person that you may help this way, who you know is living alone and in a somewhat isolated life, but also for yourself because it helps us to honour our best impulses within us. 


That means reaching out—actually actively reaching out—to those that we know are living alone, and asking, enquiring: is there any way we can assist them? 


And even if the neighbours, or other people that you know who live in our city you have not had much contact with, this is a wonderful opportunity to exercise human kindness. It doesn't cost us anything, but it really is utilizing our better natures to reach out to a fellow citizen.


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Flanagan: There’s always something else on the news. Your social media feeds are just full of information about the current pandemic. Is it okay for people to turn away once in a while? Should they be taking a break from this information as part of their day?


Dr. Sommers: Absolutely they should. We are leaving now in media saturation, with numbers being thrown at us and most of the news is pretty sad and... and negative. It is very important that we set ourselves a disciplined limit to how we dip into this media sea of very onerous and heavy news. 


So I would recommend that, twice a day, checking in with the news is quite sufficient. This is one way that we can combat our sense of isolation and anxiety and give ourselves a bit of a brain cooling, as I alluded to earlier.


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Flanagan: Dr. Sommers, you mentioned a little bit about routines, and I'm wondering how important those are. Does that help people to feel normal?


Dr. Sommers: Having a certain schedule, a certain discipline, is very good for our mental health. It provides a sense of security and predictability to the flow of our day. Just because we are not obliged to necessarily be present at a workplace, where routine is really often imposed upon us, we can very readily create a routine in our lives. 


It is recommended that we get up at a certain regular time and we get dressed and do various activities during the day, whether it's work-related or study-related, and including some exercise. And don't forget that an old practice of sitting down with a book can be very entertaining and also very rewarding in many respects. 


Having a routine can make the time go faster, and it can help our sense of equilibrium, maintain good spirits during this rather difficult pandemic that’s sweeping our planet.


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Flanagan: Children, I’d imagine that they are even more sensitive to changes in routine than adults are. Is that true?


Dr. Sommers: Yes, it is quite important to rise to this challenge. So we have to recognize a few things; for example, children will very much model their feelings and behaviour depending on what they see in their parents, so it is so important for parents to be mindful of that and to be practicing a willingness to engage with their children—for example engaging in age appropriate communication with their children, validating their children’s feelings, provide a sense of optimism, a sense of reassurance and that we are getting through this. Promote positive coping activities—such as playing games together, reading together, perhaps exercising together, involving children in virtually connecting with loved ones. 


Also, quite importantly, instil in our children—use this opportunity—the importance of hygiene like proper hand-washing, teaching our children that we try not to touch our eyes, nose and mouth, and generally making our children realize that a physical separation has a purpose. 


At the same time, as we talk about staying routines, it is very important and valuable for children to know that they have a routine and they can see from the parents’ behaviour that the world is not ending. That in fact, life goes on.


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Voice-over: This podcast is brought to you by the Ontario Medical Association. It is produced and edited by Jodi Crawford Productions. This podcast is not intended to provide medical advice for specific situations and is for general educational purposes only. Please consult your doctor if you have symptoms or questions about your health.


For more information, please visit our website at


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