As the pandemic takes a toll on mental health, options are available for those seeking relief from emotional pain

The Canadian Mental Health Association's website is a good place to start

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      East Vancouver resident Jonathan Wells vividly recalls when he had a pandemic mental-health moment. He was at the SeaBus station at Lonsdale Quay when another passenger sat a little too close to him for comfort. So Wells told him off before quickly feeling remorseful.

      “I said, ‘you know, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I don’t even know you,’ ” Wells recalled in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “He said ‘that’s okay, we’re all kind of nervous right now.’ It was one of those really human moments. We’re all in this together. That’s what I keep reminding myself.”

      For the most part, Wells said that he’s fared remarkably well in the pandemic, even though he was off work for three months. He lives alone with his cat and took care of himself in the early months by going on daily walks to New Brighton Park. That’s where he would meditate to stay grounded.

      Wells is in his early 50s, a period of life when he’s not so interested in external validation. But he acknowledged that had the pandemic occurred when he was in his 20s, things would have been far more challenging. He also believes that people who are more ego-based in their relationship to the world are finding it more difficult to cope with social isolation.

      “I saw people having a very different time,” Wells said. “It was almost soul-destroying. It totally threatened their way of life.”

      Recently, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s B.C. division and the University of British Columbia released the results of a survey showing that the pandemic is taking a significant toll on mental wellness.

      More than 70 percent of respondents reported feeling negative emotions, with the most common being “worried or anxious”, “bored”, “stressed”, and “lonely or isolated”. Another common response, however, was positive—31 percent of people reported feeling “hopeful”.

      The lead researcher, UBC nursing assistant professor Emily Jenkins, pointed out that sharing normal feelings during the pandemic is important. That’s because by articulating emotions, it can disrupt and reduce neural activity in the amygdala. That’s an almond-shaped part of the brain that responds to threats, which can lead to body responses, such as an increased heart rate.

      This week's Georgia Straight cover focuses attention on mental health and the pandemic.
      Tayeb Merrakchi

      Name it, don't numb it

      Jonny Morris, CEO of CMHA’s B.C. division, told the Straight by phone that 40 percent of Canadians have said that their mental health has “deteriorated or gotten worse” during the pandemic. He emphasized that the percentage is higher for those with pre-existing mental-health or substance-use problems.

      “We know that a number of groups are harder hit—racialized folks, folks living with a disability, parents, caregivers, young people aged 18 to 24,” Morris said.

      In addition, Morris pointed out that the impact on mental health has been amplified for those in certain occupations, such as the health professions or those working in essential services, including grocery stores. As part of Mental Health Week earlier this month, the CMHA was promoting a message of “name it, don’t numb it.”

      “Right now, many of us are having feelings that are perhaps more unpleasant than usual,” Morris said. “We’re bored. We’re languishing. We’re irritable. We’re tired. Right? It’s really important to talk about how we’re doing in that regard, as well.”

      CMHA B.C. CEO Jonny Morris says it's important to offer a listening ear to those feeling distress.

      While Wells can count himself among the lucky ones, it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. The disruption at work was challenging but it was even more stressful thinking about his parents early in the pandemic. They are snowbirds who were in the Las Vegas area when the COVID-19 case counts started to rise.

      “I became increasingly scared for their safety,” Wells recalled. “That was a really nerve-wracking time of not knowing what was happening in terms of travel and encouraging them to go back.”

      His parents felt that there was no need to leave because the weather was so nice. “I said ‘you’ve got to get out, you’ve got to get out! What if your insurance doesn’t cover it?’ I was really worried about it.”

      At the time, Wells expected the pandemic to last for quite a while. That’s because he was paying particular attention to interviews with University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who predicted very early on that 480,000 Americans would die from COVID-19.

      “I managed my expectations in terms of what I knew was happening in the world and what an actual pandemic was—mostly on his information,” Wells said.

      On March 10, 2020, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm predicted more than 480,000 American deaths from COVID-19 by the end of the year.

      COVID long hauler receives boost from community

      The pandemic has taken a far greater toll on Richmond Sentinel journalist and broadcaster Lorraine Graves. She contracted COVID-19 back in March 2020 and still shows symptoms of the disease today. As one of thousands of Canadian COVID-19 “long haulers”, it’s not only been a grind physically, it has also been tough mentally.

      “When I was at my sickest, I reached a point where I was terribly calm and I knew that I might not get better,” Graves told the Straight by phone. “That was okay—and I’m not a person who’s at peace on any given day, but it was very peaceful then.”

      As she’s gotten better, however, she conceded that there have been “some really dark times just thinking ‘gosh, is this all I have left?’ ”

      “But I’ve got friends,” Graves quickly added. “I’ve got my connections with the paper. I’m on very light duties, but they have been wonderful.”

      Fortunately, Graves has a supportive family and she has seen her symptoms recede somewhat since taking the Moderna vaccine. While her breathing has improved, she’s still experiencing cognitive issues, sleeping difficulties, fatigue, and pain.

      “I’ve not had a miraculous recovery like some people do, but it’s incrementally better,” she said.

      Graves noted positively that she can continue with activities for three consecutive hours rather than only one hour in the past.

      One of the best things for Graves has been the support from the community. She professed enormous gratitude to find out that “acquaintances are really true friends”, calling or texting her when she was at her sickest.

      Meanwhile, Rogers communications strategist Paul Nixey has been trying to cheer up strangers over social media. Every morning, he tweets a humorous message encouraging people to feel good about themselves.

      “I started by saying ’reminder today is Tuesday’ or some such [thing] and then started adding something nice to each one,” Nixey related to the Straight. “Since then, I’ve got a steady group of new Twitter friends who react [and] comment—it’s a way to feel connected while we are all so disconnected. It’s also a good way for me to tell what day it is.”

      Counselling is available 

      For those who need more than a happy tweet, the CMHA’s B.C. division offers several alternatives, including online learning and support for people in the continuing-care sector.

      “We’ve been doing quite a bit in that space—suicide prevention, how to manage burnout and fatigue, and pointing out where people can go to find a listening ear,” the CMHA’s Morris said.

      In addition, there’s a depression and anxiety-care program called BounceBack, which has been operating for 12 years. Morris noted that it’s recorded a 50 percent increase in visitors since the pandemic started, attracting thousands of referrals. Plus, the CMHA’s B.C. division operates some peer-support programs with financial help from the B.C. government.

      Those in distress can call 310-6789 and be patched into the Crisis Centre network. No area code is necessary. And Foundry B.C. offers wellness resources, services, and supports to young people between the ages of 12 and 24.

      “We’ve been really encouraging people to ‘reach in’,” Morris said. “If you’re worried about somebody, reach in and say ‘I’m worried out you. I’m here to listen.’ These can sometimes be life-saving words.”

      For anyone in distress, helpful resources include the Crisis Line (604-872-3311), postsecondary institution counselling departments, and family physicians or medical clinics. Those in distress can also visit a hospital emergency room.