Using media and entertainment to help support mental health during pandemic

By Elise Zwicky For Chronicle Media

Rachelle Pavelko, an assistant professor in Bradley University’s Communications Department, says using media and entertainment can help support mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Bradley University)

Being glued to a screen can have its downsides, but a Bradley University communications expert says finding the right ways to use media and entertainment can actually help support mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a lot of research out there that shows that just like you can receive social support from your peer group, you can also receive similar feelings from different types of media,” said Rachelle Pavelko, an assistant professor in Bradley’s Communications Department who holds a doctorate from Indiana University’s Media School.

“So maybe that’s a podcast that’s one of your favorites and you feel like the hosts are your frien

ds. Or it could be tuning into your favorite show that’s on Netflix and binging “Friends” for the 10th time because you feel like you know the characters and that’s just a nice level of comfort.”

The same benefit can be reached by watching celebrities, athletes and newscasters on television during these days of social isolation, she noted.

“Even though I don’t know Michael Strahan, when I’m watching ‘Good Morning America,’ it feels like he’s my friend in my living room telling me the news while I’m having my coffee. It’s a feeling of comfort,” Pavelko explained.

Psychologist Sandy Colbs, director of student counseling services at Illinois State University, agrees. “Ironically, even the fact that many TV shows have shifted to filming inside people’s homes has given us a closer sense of connection to famous people. Technology has been used to share music, laughter, poetry, theater, art and film, keeping the arts in our lives to support mental health,” she said.

Alexander Swan, an assistant professor of psychology at Eureka College, said use of the social network TikTok for sharing videos has been helpful, particularly for college-age students.

“They’re content creating in a way and giving viewers a means to humorously explore their own quarantine,” said Swan, who holds a doctorate in psychological and brain sciences from the University of California-Santa Barbara. “Humor is an incredible way to deal with stress, and I promote this coping strategy a lot in my health psychology course.”

Noting that laughing is a stress-relieving aerobic exercise that releases endorphins and dopamine, Swan added, “So watch those TikTok videos, those comedy films or specials, or have a good laugh session with friends or family over Zoom.”

Other connection apps he suggested are iMessage, Facetime, Google Hangouts, Zoom, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. “Though we may be social distancing, it doesn’t mean we have to be alone,” he said. “Loneliness is devil in the details here and it’s incredibly important to stave off the feelings in any way we can.”

Pavelko said finding new ways, such as games, to interact with friends over some of those platforms can also help. “We’ve been doing a lot of Zoom trivia with some of our friends. It’s just something a little different and fun. It almost feels normal for a minute,” she said.

The traditional advice of balancing the negative aspects of screen time with the positive benefits still applies during the pandemic.

Psychologist Sandy Colbs, director of student counseling services at Illinois State University, says social media and other creative shared experiences, such as online games, is helping people not feel as isolated during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Illinois State University)

“Do your best to limit yourself to whatever you feel is good with all kinds of media,” Pavelko advised. “If taking in too much of the pandemic news is starting to feel really detrimental, mix it up with something that’s way more light-hearted.”

She also suggested that people do their best to follow very credible sources of information on social media, checking that the content they’re reading is reliable and data-driven and can be confirmed with other sources.

“And if there are people on social media that maybe you follow that are in the moment sharing information that you feel is detrimental to your mental health, maybe take a break from them—block them, mute them or unfollow,” she added.

Leslie Leitner, 63, of Pekin and her husband, Tim, have been turning to old favorite shows but also trying new ones on platforms such as Acorn, Britbox, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix.

“We have loads of free time since our usual meetings and exercise classes and other get-togethers have been sidelined,” Leitner said.

The couple also have tuned in to Facebook Live performances such as “Banjo House Lockdown” and even a concert by four Peoria Symphony violinists on someone’s driveway.

Leitner said she’s attended a virtual birthday party, baby shower, library board meeting, and book club meeting all on Zoom, as well as regular Zoom chats with friends. She’s even used technology to keep up with a ballet class, and she and Tim have done a Facebook Live class with a fitness instructor.

“I am thrilled that these opportunities are available, and it truly helps keep my sanity,” Leitner said.

Technology also offers another avenue of help for people who find the stress of the pandemic to be too much.

“We’ve lived through different economic crises before, but putting this altogether with an airborne virus that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people across the world and causing wide-scale global panic, there’s just stress from every angle,” Pavelko said.

If someone is feeling overwhelmed, Swan said telehealth is well-suited for psychotherapy. “As long as you have an active listener in your therapist or counselor, as well as one who offers warmth and kindness across a vast distance, the experience should be therapeutic,” he said. “Offering a way for folks to drop in to Zoom meetings safely and avoiding security or confidentiality issues might be one way of promoting mental health during our COVID-19 situation.”

Colbs said her department at ISU was able to switch its mental health care to tele-mental health fairly quickly. “While most clinicians would prefer face-to-face sessions with clients, tele-health has been a good alternative to these times, and we plan to continue to use it extensively throughout the fall semester,” she said.