By Sue Tiffin
While the new year might have started with hope and a new calendar, it also continues in the second wave of the pandemic that began almost a year ago, a crisis causing stress and anxiety for many residents as they deal with challenges created by a second provincial shutdown, school closures, unemployment, isolation, and loss or anticipatory grief.
Jack Veitch, manager of community engagement and education, Canadian Mental Health Association Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge, said reminders about mental health, that these feelings aren’t wrong, and how we can take care of our mental health with resources available are essential to help us get through these times in as healthy a manner as possible.
“People are really struggling,” said Veitch, who said in October that crisis call volume in the area had increased, being 30 per cent higher than what crisis intervention and mental health support workers would typically see with a “steady uptick back to March.”
“It’s the idea that, it’s all of these things that we’ve talked about for decades that are detrimental to mental health, but keep sort of piling on for people, people that might be struggling with isolation, people that might be struggling with job insecurity, financial insecurity, all of these things happening in this sort of compounded fashion, all at once. It can be chaotic,” he said. “It can be sort of overwhelming for many.”
Veitch said national data shows very plainly that people are experiencing heightened rates of generalized anxiety, and while some people thrive in solitude with time to themselves, many, especially the vulnerable sector, might feel isolated. He urged people to take care of themselves, and others.
“I think about the community of Haliburton and the work I’ve done there, the work my staff is doing there,” he said. “In my opinion it’s a tight-knit community that comes together, supports each other. There are supports available, there are resources available. If I could scream anything from the roof-tops, it’s reach out. If you’re struggling, you don’t have to struggle alone or silently.”
The factors potentially that lead toward a person experiencing a mental health concern or mental health illness are often environmental factors, situational life stresses that are happening, said Veitch, including job loss, financial insecurity, isolation. There’s also genetic predisposition – people might be predisposed to mental illness, much the same as physical illness. Additionally, a traumatic event, much like the pandemic for some, or work or job life stress can be factors as well. Any of these factors might affect a person in a different way.
“Maybe a person who is experiencing social isolation, that isolation might be really damaging to person A, but to person B, they can sort of manage it well,” said Veitch. “But when we’re seeing all of those things happening at once, it’s sort of like we’re getting multiple shots, multiple ticks against us, one after the other after the other.”
The same is true in recovery – something that helps one person might not be as effective for another.
“The most successful recovery plans are always person, patient, client-centered,” said Veitch. “They’re person-centred plans. I’m at the centre of my recovery plan, I’m involved in it, and I believe in it and I follow through. I could be using the wide gambit of making sure I’m getting adequate sleep, making sure I’m being active and exercising, making sure I’m eating properly, making sure I’m still connecting with people in a safe and responsible way, socializing accordingly, I think a sense of purpose.”
Veitch said that might seem vague, but he thinks of it like this: “I’m sure you have people in your life or you may know people that, pre-pandemic, every morning, they woke up and they went to the local gyms or the local coffee shop and they just had a coffee, every morning. That was their routine. And that sense of purpose, was really actually integral to their wellness. If you think, well, that sounds silly, think of it like this: I had to make sure that I got up that morning, that I brushed my teeth, got myself dressed, had a quick bite and then I’m out the door on time. All the little things that came with just making sure I’m on time to have my morning coffee. That sense of purpose. And what we try to instill in people is, trying to make sure I’m doing these things, built around myself, my own investment, in a new way. I can’t go to the coffee shop, can I arrange that every morning at 8 o’clock, I call my old buddy I used to meet at McKeck’s or wherever and say, hey, let’s have our morning coffee together and just catch up and see what’s going on. Or what can we do together that’s going to keep us well but in a new way.”
At this time, it’s essential to remember that recovery is possible, said Veitch, though it might look different – rather than working through anxiety or depression using typical means of walking with a friend for an outing, for example, maybe people might call a friend, or have a socially distanced visit outside, in accordance with recommendations from public health agencies.
“Can I adapt?,” said Veitch. “I can’t go to the gym, but I can still exercise. There are still things I can do to be well.”
Veitch reiterated that it’s OK to experience and acknowledge feelings that might not feel great.
“Dealing with anger, frustration, sadness, those aren’t wrong emotions,” he said. “There’s sometimes that thought, that if I’m feeling angry or frustrated, I have to get rid of that. That’s a bad emotion. It’s not wrong or a bad emotion if I’m feeling it. Sometimes sitting with that and honouring and understanding that is important, it’s valuable. But what I reflect back to people … there’s a difference between feeling frustrated with the situation, or frustrated or angry with the world, and striking somebody at the supermarket. There’s a difference. If I’m seeing those feelings becoming really disruptive, that’s what I want to sort of identify, and work on managing those more appropriately, that self-regulation piece. Feeling angry and sad and frustrated, that’s not bad – it’s not fun, often, but they’re important.”
He also said it’s important to acknowledge feelings to better understand where they come from, and to be able to work through them in self-reflection.
“People often think of mental distress as the sad, the tearful, the withdrawn, sort of away somewhere quietly sad and fearful. Sometimes distress is angry, it’s frustrated,” he said. “Think about a time perhaps when you were really anxious, I can think of myself, working from home here, I’ve got 1,000 e-mails coming in, I’ve got important phone calls, and I’ve got my six-year-old, who’s like ‘Dad, turn on the Nintendo!’” The Nintendo might become the focus of conflict.
“That’s not that I’m angry,” said Veitch. “But there’s that anxiety, that anxiety is manifesting itself as anger.”
And with self-reflection, Veitch said, the stress can be addressed: “Am I really this angry right now, or do I really just need to take a deep breath, slow my system down and acknowledge, OK, I can deal with that in a bit, once I deal with my other responsibilities first. And so again, reminding people that that feeling of anger is really a reflection of anxiety and stress. Not bad, but again, it needs to be mindful to reflect on.”
At a time when emotions are high between friends and family, people online, even strangers in line at the store, it’s also important to set personal boundaries and recognize what is in our lives that might not be helpful or beneficial, so that we can calm it and set limits for ourselves.
“Is it wrong to set limits as a result with people in my life? Absolutely not. I’ll always say, I personally, I don’t think anybody has the authority to tell another what their boundaries should be. For me to come in and say, you can only accept this amount from your family, or this amount from your friends, I don’t have that right. What I often encourage people is to start reflecting internally. What are my boundaries or limits? What would I accept or not accept as appropriate behaviour, a way that I’m talked to or addressed, a conversation I would engage in? Starting to reflect on those personal boundaries internally is going to be really important here … The most effective boundaries are always very, very clear, and they’re very, very consistent. Clarity and consistency will always lead the most effective boundaries in any relationship.”
A 30-day mute of friends or family on social media is always an option, he said.
And while Veitch stresses a positive mindset is always important, it’s important to not diminish the thoughts and feelings of real world situations – so considering what is in our control and what isn’t can be helpful for anxious feelings.
“Think about how much of that anxiety is related to wanting to control things I can’t,” he said. “I want the pandemic to be over, I want to just do something to make it over because I don’t want to feel this way anymore. I want to just have it go back to the way it was, or just that sense of grasping for control can lead to really unhealthy coping mechanisms. And so, again, that idea of focus on what I can control – and what I can’t control, at least for most of us, is our day-to-day life. I’m going to control when I get up in the morning, and when I go to sleep, unless I’m a new parent. I’m going to control my sleep cycles as best I can, my diet as best I can, my exercise, my socialization, the boundaries or limits I set with others, all of those things. Let’s focus on what I can control. Because if we get down to that snowball effect of all of the things I cannot control, it can potentially become really overwhelming for us.”
While the pandemic is heightening these feelings for many, Veitch said looking after our mental health in any situation always comes back to the same factors.
“If you asked me five years ago, and said, list five things you need to do to take care of mental health, I would have said socialization, sleep, diet, physical activity, having a sense of purpose – hobbies or interest. I’m going to give you the same list again, how we roll this out might look a little different.”
And though these ideas might seem obvious to some, looking at why and how they are helpful and how they might help our own individual situations can help us put them into play.
“It’s so funny, people know that it’s important to eat well to be healthy,” said Veitch. “Well, let’s really break that down to mental health. Why is it important to have a healthy diet? Well, why is it important to limit things like sugars and caffeine? Sugars and caffeine are stimulants, they speed up and excite my brain. They make it work quicker. When I’m feeling anxiety or anxious feelings, my brain is moving very quickly, that caffeine is speeding up that already sped-up brain. The diet is sort of contributing to anxious feelings, actively. It comes back to the simple message of diet, and reminding people that, oh yeah, quite frankly, scientifically, my diet is impacting my brain’s chemistry.”
That being said, chocolate or caffeine don’t need to be excluded completely, necessarily, Veitch said – everything in moderation, with an awareness of when it might become not healthy or not helpful.
Veitch stressed the importance of reaching out in a safe way, getting through the pandemic together.
“We’re going to get through this as a community, by supporting each other,” he said. “If I’ve got someone in my life that I think might be isolated, that older adult or that person who lives by themselves, giving them a phone call once a week isn’t going to do any harm, in fact, it’s going to do a lot of good.”
Free, professional, confidential crisis support for anyone struggling with mental health, relationships, addiction or work life is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling Four County Crisis at 705-745-6484 or 1-866-995-9933. Visit https://cmhahkpr.ca/ for more information.