Ready for Re-entry?
As communities return to pre-pandemic life, some struggle to reengage.
by Bill Donahue

Not all scars are visible. In the past year, for example, Rittenhouse Psychiatric Associates has had to hire five new outpatient psychiatric providers to accommodate a significant increase in the number of individuals seeking help for issues pertaining to mental health. 
“The pandemic has been very difficult for a large number of individuals,” says Chris Pagnani, M.D., medical director of Rittenhouse Psychiatric Associates (, which has offices in Paoli and Philadelphia. “We’ve seen both an increase in calls for new patient visits, and an increase in existing patients requiring more frequent visits.” 
Apart from the risk of infection and death, the pandemic has wrought far-reaching havoc in people’s everyday lives. Some individuals may feel confident about their ability to navigate such an uncertain and stressful time, but others have been less fortunate. Depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders have been triggered or worsened by the increased isolation resulting from the decrease in human-to-human interaction, according to Dr. Pagnani. 
More than 46 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, and restrictions have been largely lifted. In other words, communities are slowly returning to pre-pandemic life. Not everyone is prepared for “re-entry,” however. Some have turned to alcohol and drugs to cope. Others have sought comfort elsewhere, in the form of seemingly innocent habits that have the potential to turn destructive.
“The pandemic upended a lot of lives, bringing on so much isolation and stress and change of routine, and many of us have turned to food as comfort,” says Ronni Robinson, a writer who lives in Lower Moreland. “A lot of people joke about putting on quarantine weight. People need to find more healthful ways to cope, because there’s so many better ways to get through a difficult time.”
Robinson knows a thing or two about unhealthy relationships with food. For much of her life, she struggled with compulsive overeating, a disorder in which she ate not to sate her hunger but to fill an emotional void. She shared some of the most intimate details of her disorder and recovery in her candid 2020 memoir, Out of the Pantry: A Disordered Eating Journey.
“When you have this addiction, you do so much in secrecy,” she says. “You spend your whole day thinking: What am I going to eat? Where can I get it? How do I eat it without anyone seeing me? If I was going to a party, I wasn’t interested in talking to friends; I was interested in the food.”
She knew she had a problem, but she had to get to the root of the disorder in order to beat it. With the support of her family, she sought professional help from two therapists, including one who had personal experience with compulsive overeating. Doing so helped her realize that overcoming her disorder had less to do with willpower, or lack thereof, and more to do with what she calls “healing my inner child” from past emotional trauma that drove her to seek comfort in food—sweets, in particular. 
“It wasn’t until therapy that things started to make sense to me,” she says. “Back in the day, the only eating disorders you heard about were anorexia and bulimia. I just thought I had a sweet tooth. I never associated what I was doing with what happened in my childhood.”
Robinson succeeded in moving past her disorder and has established a healthy relationship with food. Finding more constructive outlets, such as exercise, certainly helped. A lifelong fitness enthusiast, Robinson is a three-time Ironman finisher and currently works part time as a Spinning instructor. Also, as a moderator of the Facebook group Overcoming Food Nonsense, she extends a hand to others who struggle with eating disorders. In the future, she would like to become certified as an eating-disorder recovery coach. 
Robinson hopes Out of the Pantry helps readers learn more about the path to overcoming an eating disorder. She’s in the process of writing a follow-up book, a novel of female empowerment about a woman who had a dysfunctional childhood. 
“I don’t turn to food anymore,” she says. “The urge to binge is gone because I’ve healed all of my past. A lot of people eat, drink, or do drugs to drown out the feelings, to numb themselves and escape their problems. You can try to do that, but now you have two problems.”
Her best advice to anyone who has developed unhealthy eating habits brought on by the pandemic: “Get professional help if you need it. Get out of the house. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Read a book. Find a healthier way to deal with those emotions you’re feeling.”
Dr. Pagnani underscores the need to seek professional help when needed. In addition to leading Rittenhouse Psychiatric Associates, Dr. Pagnani serves as an instructor at The Johns Hopkins Hospital for Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He’s also a supervisor of resident physicians in psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. He remains hopeful that individuals’ perception of others, and of the American way of life, will largely return to the way they were prior to the pandemic.
“With that said, many individuals with depression, anxiety, OCD, and substance difficulties have experienced a longstanding worsening of symptoms [over the last year],” he says. “It will take time for individuals to receive proper help, and become re-conditioned to pre-pandemic life.” 

Reproducing Results
The desire to start a family is human nature. In fact, all creatures great and small share the innate desire to procreate, to propagate, to generate offspring. Sometimes, however, Mother Nature does not cooperate with the biological imperative. 
The Philadelphia area’s medical community includes an abundance of skilled physicians, surgeons, and other clinicians who have devoted their careers to helping families start or add to their families. Some of these individuals not only provide excellent care but also conduct groundbreaking research designed to unlock the secrets of infertility and, in the process, continue to improve families’ chances of getting a “positive” result.
“It’s never too early to contact us if someone finds they’re having difficulties conceiving or are looking to preserve their fertility options for the future,” says Emily K. Osman, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist with RMA Marlton. “We’re here to talk about their individual situation. Whether someone is looking to have a healthy pregnancy now or having an insurance policy for the future through cryopreservation, we offer both options here in Marlton.”
The following organizations are known for providing exceptional care in helping families grow safely.

Main Line Fertility
Multiple locations

Penn Fertility Care 

RMA Network
Multiple locations

Shady Grove Fertility
Multiple locations

Sincera Reproductive Medicine
Multiple locations

Society Hill Reproductive Medicine

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, June 2021.