University News

Experts to Discuss Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health

Claude Ann Mellins, Ph.D., and Lourival Baptista, M.D., are passionate about promoting mental health and well-being, which they say is especially important during the coronavirus global pandemic. On Jan. 19, they will share their expertise as part of the University’s longest-running and most distinguished guest speaker series.

January 14, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Drs. Claude Ann Mellins and Lourival Baptista.
Drs. Claude Ann Mellins and Lourival Baptista will speak to the University community as part of the Bartels Lecture Series.

Claude Ann Mellins, Ph.D., spent time growing up serving as a counselor at Ramapo for Children, a summer camp for kids with learning, emotional, and behavioral challenges. She learned that mental health challenges can be devastating, and she also learned about resilience. From those experiences, she committed herself to promoting mental health and resilience in young people.

Today, Dr. Mellins, who is now part of the Board of Directors of Ramapo for Children, is a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University and a research scientist and co-director of the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies in the Division of Gender, Sexuality, and Health at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University. A clinical psychologist with expertise in psychosocial aspects of substance use, stress, trauma, and HIV disease, she has dedicated her career to recognizing the psychological impact of conditions such as poverty, the stigma of discrimination, and HIV – something that, she says, prepared her to help others cope with the devastating impact of another virus.

"The psychological impact of COVID-19 is likely to last a much longer time based on our experiences with other pandemics and disasters."Claude Ann Mellins, Ph.D.

“COVID had so many parallels to HIV in terms of its impact on providers early in the pandemic,” said Dr. Mellins, who co-founded and co-directed the Special Needs Clinic at New York Presbyterian Hospital, which has provided care to more than 1,800 patients since 1992. “Early on, both viruses had unclear transmission routes, no known treatments, and stigma, and they contributed to high death rates, long work hours, and emotional exhaustion. I became very committed to providing peer support to the providers who worked so hard to save so many.”

'It is very important that we exercise kindness'

Dr. Mellins will bring her expertise and her message about the importance of fostering mental health and wellness to the University community as part the Bartels Lecture Series on Tuesday, January 19. The virtual event, titled “Supporting Our Emotional and Psychological Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” will be a live webcast via Zoom beginning at 6:30 p.m.

The University’s longest running guest speaker series, the Bartels Lecture Series was established more than 30 years ago by University benefactors Henry Bartels ’91 Hon. and Nancy Bartels ’11 Hon. to enrich the educational experience of students by bringing prominent leaders in business and public service to the University.

Dr. Mellins says that although mental health is always a critical public health issue, it is especially important amid the coronavirus global pandemic, as the stress, social isolation, uncertainty, and loss that so many have experienced have been harmful to individuals’ mental health.

“Long past the health threat of COVID, there will be long-term mental health consequences related to the economic and societal effects of the public health response,” she said. “Although the vaccine rollout brings hope, the psychological impact of COVID-19 is likely to last a much longer time based on our experiences with other pandemics and disasters.”

Dr. Mellins will take part in the event with her colleague Lourival Baptista, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and vice chair for clinical services in Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry. A bilingual and board-certified psychiatrist, Dr. Baptista’s areas of interest and expertise include mood and anxiety disorders and the interface of medical and psychiatric illness.

"In 2020, the pandemic-related stress was magnified by other systemic factors such as the political climate, elections, and racial tensions, which deeply affected the country as a whole."Lourival Baptista, Ph.D.

“Stigma and misperceptions about mental health and psychiatry as a field remain a significant barrier for many people to ask for and access help,” he said. “In times like our current reality, when we expect that more people will need support, it is very important that we exercise kindness and listen and look out for each other.”

Dr. Baptista and Dr. Mellins are co-founders of the CopeColumbia program, which focuses on promoting resilience and well-being among Columbia University employees.

Following their lecture, Dr. Mellins and Dr. Baptista will take part in a discussion that will be moderated by Summer McGee, Ph.D., CPH, dean of the University’s School of Health Sciences, and the University’s COVID-19 coordinator.

'A significant impact on mental health and well-being'

Dr. Baptista, who directed the Pediatric Psychiatry Consultation Liaison Service at Children's Hospital Boston-Harvard Medical School before joining Columbia, is dedicated to promoting mental health. He says that, especially during such a stressful time as the pandemic, it is crucial to be more aware and intentional about well-being and mental health.

“We know from prior pandemics and disasters that the psychological impact of such events in the community can be significantly larger than the medical impact, both in size and duration,” he said. “In 2020, the pandemic-related stress was magnified by other systemic factors such as the political climate, elections, and racial tensions, which deeply affected the country as a whole.”

Dr. Mellins agrees that the pandemic has been devastating, and she says it has also highlighted significant disparities in access to healthcare and quality of care. She also notes that the pandemic has been particularly devastating for young adults – including college students.

“Young adulthood is a time of significant emotional and social development,” she said. “COVID-19-related policies to contain the virus have impacted young people as they launch their careers, threatened educational opportunities, and resulted in restrictions on socialization. Many young people were separated from peers and had to move back home as colleges shut down or jobs were lost. All of this can have a significant impact on mental health and well-being.”

All students, faculty, and staff have received the Zoom login information to participate in this event. Alumni, friends, and members of the community can watch the presentation live at beginning at 6:30 p.m.