By Jenn Watt
The coronavirus pandemic has changed nearly every facet of our daily lives, disrupting routines and limiting contact with loved ones, introducing financial pressures and heightening anxiety about our health and that of others.
Mental health professionals serving the Haliburton Highlands say they’ve seen an increase in visits and that clients are feeling the weight of five months of COVID-19 pressure – but also that there are effective techniques and community supports that can help.
“The volume of inquiries has definitely increased since May after dropping off dramatically in March and April,” said Rebecca Brownell, a registered marriage and family therapist and registered psychotherapist with an office at the Colborne Street Clinic in Orillia. “…I think there are many couples struggling with having to manage parenting at home all day together, figuring out a new routine re: childcare and the management of household tasks; creating healthy boundaries around working from home and managing stress. … Suddenly people’s routines have been thrown off.”
Alone time has suffered, she said, with adults working from home together or potentially staying home if they’ve lost their jobs due to the economic downturn.
“Many are reporting missing going out to work and missing the social interactions with their co-workers. Many derive a sense of purpose and competence from their work and enjoy getting positive feedback from colleagues. Many are missing the banter around the water cooler!” she said.
Private clinician and registered social service worker Nancy Brownsberger, who offers non-therapeutic based support and counselling through Grow Optimism, also saw numbers drop when the pandemic first arrived.
“Initially, my practice became very quiet,” she said, “As did the world. As we all took a respective knee to the virus, I believe that most of us recoiled in absolute shock and disbelief as well as fear. I know I certainly did. About a month into the shut-down I began to receive requests for mental health support from individuals who found they were struggling with navigating the current world and their new realities.”
A global pandemic is something most alive today have never lived through before, and the reality of the health threats and the necessary precautions to be taken naturally lead to uncertainty and sometimes to fear.
“The term ‘unprecedented times’ is almost an understatement to the realities that we faced individually and on a global scale,” Brownsberger said. “A virus, that is highly contagious, with no known cure, is sweeping the globe and has the possibility of killing us in an extremely terrifying way – namely, alone, in a hospital, on a ventilator.”
Nicole Mee, a registered psychotherapist who runs Forest Lane Counselling, said combining the realities of the pandemic with life events can intensify issues.
“The stressors may have always been there, but the pandemic has amplified it for some. For others it is mainly related to societal norms and changes in routine. I think as a whole society we are seeing an ever-changing and fast-moving shift in the way we operate. People do not always adapt well to change in ‘normal times’ but when it is at a global level and happens rapidly it can create high anxiety and stress for people.”
The stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic can also aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions, leading to increased anxiety and depression in some.
“People with histories of trauma are especially vulnerable to this kind of stress as it is reminiscent of a time in their lives when they didn’t feel safe and secure and did not have a sense of certainty about their future,” Brownell explained. “People who have a history of depression and anxiety are also more vulnerable as the brain attempts to deal with a new stressor and uncertainty. I have noticed that there is an increase in prescribed medications such as benzodiazepines for anxiety and antidepressants for depression.”
Brownell said that isolation is especially hard on one’s mental health: “Many are feeling lonely and disconnected. We are social beings, craving and needing touch and closeness. Teens are struggling immensely with a disconnect from friends. And many adults have not been able to hold their elderly parents in nursing homes. This has been devastating to many of my clients.”
Brownsberger pointed out that while for some, the pandemic has brought people together to get through a difficult time, not everyone was surrounded by supportive family and friends – physically or virtually.
“[D]uring the first two months of the virus, there was a meme on social media that went something like this ‘we may all be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat’. To me, this was a perfect example of individual experience – meaning, if you have mental illness or susceptibility to feeling anxious or depressed, your boat might more easily fill with water and tip over,” she said. “And that is where, I believe, we began to hear and see divisiveness, comparative suffering.”
Brownsberger said she worries that when people are afraid, there can be an impulse to label fellow humans as “the other,” leading to anger, divisiveness and sometimes hate.
“And when we are in a state of fear or anxiety, with little ability to address it or find strategies to cope with it in a healthy way, it can affect our central nervous systems and increase our likelihood for an increase in previously diagnosed mental illness symptoms like anxiety (fear of what might happen or lack of control about what is happening), depression ( feelings of sadness, grief and loss about what is happening),” she said.
Finding hope and help
One strategy to cope when the world is filled with uncertainty and conflict is to focus on the joys in one’s life. Mee said she works with clients to look for silver linings such as having more time with family, returning to a favourite hobby, or the chance to adopt a slower pace.
“Self-care is something that I focus on,” Mee said. “We need to take care of ourselves and our minds before we can tackle more difficult situations. A question I often ask is, ‘What do you do for you that brings you joy?’’’ That may be talking to friends on the phone, playing cards with a family member, or listening to music, for example.
Her suggestions for those finding the pandemic overwhelming: take breaks from social media and news if it’s creating anxiety, worry, anger and frustration; find a hobby to keep busy that brings you joy; take care of your body by getting plenty of sleep, eating healthful foods, practising mindfulness, and doing stretches or other exercises; getting outside; and staying connected with friends and family.
Brownell also advocates taking breaks from overly intense news stories. “The part of our brain that alerts us to dangers is called the amygdala. When we listen to the news our amygdalas are alerted to danger in our lives and increase anxiety and a sense of not being safe. This puts our brains in a fight or flight response and a hyper-aroused state making it difficult to relax and have a positive mindset.”
Establishing a plan and creating new routines in your life can help, “like getting up at the same time of day, having family meals together, having a game night, having evening walks together, or just debriefing the day in a hot tub!” she said.
Being able to vent your frustrations and to vocalize how you’re feeling can help to put things in perspective. Brownsberger said sometimes having a conversation with a health professional can bring clarity.
“Having the opportunity to speak with a mental health professional, social worker, psychologist, therapist, psychiatrist, counsellor, spiritual advisor during times of stress allows us to vocalize some of these unhelpful thoughts and mistaken beliefs, and begin to unravel them which allows us to gain clarity during difficult times in our lives,” she said.
Being compassionate and kind is also of utmost importance not just for one’s personal mental state, but to create a community environment that fosters cohesion and well-being.
“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle (remembering that we are all struggling) is to be shamed, blamed or judged for our actions. And we are all 100 per cent responsible for how we choose to behave,” Brownsberger said. “I have said it so many times, to so many clients and groups over the past four months – ask yourself this ‘how do I choose to show up to this and how do I want to be remembered for those choices?’”
She said people should reach out when they need help, but also that friends should “reach in” when they see someone struggling: “And when we reach in, with compassion, kindness and a little fear of having a difficult conversation, we can encourage them to get the help they might need to assist them with their current struggles.”
Seeking professional help
You may need to seek help from a mental health professional when you no longer feel that you are coping or managing well, Mee said. “I recommend this when feelings of being overwhelmed, sadness or heightened anxiety make it difficult for them to enjoy the things they used to enjoy in life. In addition, I also recommend this, when someone just wants a safe, non-judgemental, confidential space to talk about what is going on in his or her world. Sometimes just talking to a caring professional can be exactly what you need to work through the thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing,” she said.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to get in touch with your health-care provider immediately.
Resources that can help
- Mental Health Services – Haliburton Highlands Health Services 705-286-4575
- Four County Crisis – 1-866-995-9933 (24-hour free crisis support)
- haliburtoncares.ca – a website offering help during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Point in Time Centre for Children, Youth and Families 705-457-5345 (after hours crisis: 1-866-995-9933)
- Local food banks and SIRCH Community Services free meals
- Private mental health practitioners and psychiatric supports – speak with your primary care physician