Running a marathon is often used as a metaphor for endurance. This analogy might be familiar for some, yet it is ubiquitous for a reason. To succeed in a marathon, you need more than athleticism and a quick start; you need the strength to keep going even after you’ve covered many miles. We call this ability to push through “endurance,” a character trait as useful in the medical industry as it is on the running track.
Caring for people’s mental health is no exception. Amid COVID-19, battling back against anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses feels like a marathon that never ends. With no finish line in sight, healthcare professionals often need the discipline and tenacity of a track star. Here at Top Doctor Magazine, we speak with many doctors who exhibit these characteristics. One of them is Dr. Jennifer Goetz, a graduate of the University of Florida who works as a pediatric psychiatrist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD.
Marathons for a Cause
The physical discipline of running has become a source of tenacity for Dr. Goetz. “I started running in college,” she tells us. “I don’t know what spurred me to run a marathon; but this year, I was like, I’m doing it.”
Running guides Dr. Goetz through the streets of Baltimore, a city she loves despite its bad reputation. “Baltimore gets a bad rap. It’s actually quite beautiful; it’s a really fun city, and it should get more positive attention,” she says.
Helping the Vulnerable
Although Dr. Goetz specializes in treating children with eating disorders, her work at Johns Hopkins encompasses a much broader range of mental health issues. “I specifically work with kids and teens and their families in psychiatric crises who get admitted to the inpatient unit at Johns Hopkins,” she explains. “It’s really an honor and a privilege to get to work with them during such a difficult period because I think being invited into family’s lives during these times is really meaningful.”
Though Dr. Goetz finds this work rewarding, the experience often leaves her drained, as she labors to come alongside children and their families in their time of desperate need. In addition, her patients struggle with various forms of severe behavioral issues, including serious mood disorders, psychotic disorders, and previous suicide attempts. The stakes at Johns Hopkins are high on a daily basis, something Dr. Goetz knew when she began her work there in April 2020. However, all the challenging work at Johns Hopkins and with family has only been exacerbated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID’s Impact on Child and Adolescent Mental Health
Typically, the world of child and adolescent psychiatric care experiences a period of downtime during the summer, when the number of new cases perceptibly decreases. Healthcare professionals rely on this downtime to recover from the stresses of busier periods. However, with the onset of COVID-19, that downtime disappeared completely, leaving Dr. Goetz to rely more heavily on the strengths she’s honed through in her running.
“Our unit has been at nearly full capacity for the last 18 months. Kids have been coming in sicker than they’ve ever been before,” she tells us.
Dr. Goetz views the pandemic’s unique set of pressures as the source of the resulting mental health crises. Previous strategies that individuals, including children and adolescents, relied on to relieve the stress of life have been removed, isolating them from friends, family, and comforting daily rhythms. Stripped of their usual defense mechanisms and subjected to new stressors, people increasingly find themselves at their breaking point. “It’s been really hard on our staff, who’ve not had a break, and who are constantly working with patients who are at a very high acuity level. It’s been challenging,” she tells us.
Finding the Joy Every Day
What can be done to stem the tide of this mental health crisis? Dr. Goetz recommends identifying something that brings you joy. Making a little time each day for this source of joy can go a long way. “It could be anything. It could be taking a walk every day. It could be doing a puzzle with someone in your family,” she says.
Avoiding unnecessary isolation can also help prevent mental illness for children and adolescents. While Dr. Goetz acknowledges that the health concerns associated with the pandemic often make isolation necessary, she urges parents to find sources of social activity for their children, as this is often an essential outlet. “I think the mental health repercussions of the pandemic are going to be with us for years to come,” Dr. Goetz tells us. To deal with these repercussions, we must make use of available resources, including parents and friends, as well as innovations such as telehealth. The latter, Dr. Goetz warns, should not be overused as in-person counseling is often the best treatment for mental illnesses.
Advice for Aspiring Medical Professionals
Aside from her work with children, Dr. Goetz also works as an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Goetz has plenty of experience advice for those currently working to enter the medical industry. “Keep an open mind in medical school, in regards to all of the different specialties. Keep your eyes and ears open because you will learn on every rotation, no matter what you’re interested in,” she says. Your priority during this season of life should be identifying where you thrive. If you have a passion for children’s mental wellness, you might consider specializing in child and adolescent eating disorders, akin to Dr. Goetz.
A Parting Reminder
Child psychiatry certainly requires tenacity and endurance, traits that Dr. Goetz possesses in spades. Whether running on the streets of Baltimore or working to free a child from an eating disorder, Dr. Goetz never gives up. “It’s a very hard road, right? It’s rigorous. The pandemic has shown a lot of holes in our systems of care, particularly in behavioral health. But I still love what I do because I love the people I get to work with.” Indeed, we all have something to learn from this diligent mentality. If you would like to read more about Dr. Goetz and her work, take a look at her profile on the Johns Hopkins website!