Kylie McMullan set her daughter up in front of a children’s art class on Zoom and sprinted into her bedroom. She had just gotten word that there was a fire to put out at work — pretty typical, as she runs her own small business and is raising two small children with her husband.
McMullan closed the door and took a 10-minute phone call. When she came back out, her four-year-old child was crying in a corner, and the teacher gently explained that the girl had not been able to unmute herself in order to participate.
The other parents in the grid of digital faces were looking at McMullan with sympathetic eyes, but she felt like a failure.
“I felt so embarrassed in front of the teacher, and other moms and dads,” she said. “Everything that we had been juggling and dealing with just broke. And I just sobbed and sobbed.”
It was just a month or so into the pandemic, and like many mothers, she had already reached a breaking point.
McMullan, who’s had trouble sleeping and an increasingly difficult time managing her mounting anxiety, isn’t alone — a February 2021 report from the BC Women’s Health Foundation shows that four in 10 women in the province report that their mental health has worsened since mid-March 2020.
The report, which gathered info on self-identified women, found that women were more likely to indicate negative emotions related to the pandemic than men, reflecting their heavy burdens: isolation, job loss, increased caregiving responsibility, and increased risk of exposure to the virus due to the gendered nature of work. From April to December 2020, women claimed over twice as many prescriptions related to anxiety, depression, or sleeping support than men.
“I think we have to recognize that this pandemic has shown fissures in our society that need our attention,” said Genesa Greening, president and CEO of the BCWHF. “The way things are structured right now has proven to be unsustainable.”
For many women, mental health has always been a tumultuous thing. And during a year when the violence against them and the inequities they face have been put on centre stage, the hurt feels particularly insurmountable. Police brutality, racial injustice, rising domestic violence and other compounding factors amplify the pain. Dozens of women reached out to The Tyee for this story describing worsening ADHD, living with autoimmune disorders, struggles with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and employment insurance, shouldering the burden of caring for loved ones and more.
Catherine, a 24-year-old living in Prince George who preferred to use their first name for privacy reasons, had already struggled with bouts of depression for years before the pandemic. As COVID-19 came to Canada in March 2020, they were hit hard once again, and the effects leached into every other aspect of their life.
By December, they were dreading going to work — at a job they love — and were deeply worried about how that might reflect in their performance. As a young non-binary woman in the workplace, the effects of their depression meant extra anxiety about how they would be perceived as they already struggled to prove themself.
“It feels like [women and non-binary people] have to work harder to get to where we are. And there’s already maybe a bit more of a critical lens on you. So I feel like you can’t really afford to mess up or show a weakness of any kind,” Catherine said.
Factors like these can easily marginalize people further and amplify mental health concerns, Greening explained.
“I think it’s safe to say that women’s health and equity is not an equal opportunity challenge,” she said. “Women as a homogenous group do experience inequities in the health system, obviously, but if you then start to add things like race, age, geography, socioeconomic realities... all of these things obviously intersect.” The BCWHF report also notes that trans and non-binary people report significantly greater levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, stress and worry than cis men or cis women.
Michaella Shannon, mental health co-ordinator with the Support Network for Indigenous Women & Women of Colour, a community organization based in Victoria and Vancouver, emphasized the specific impact the pandemic has had on racialized women.
“Black, Indigenous and POC have experiences unique to their white counterparts,” she told the Tyee by email. “Dealing with racism, systemic or interpersonal, and the trauma that follows being a racialized person in Canada is a big part of the mental health care that is needed in the community.”
Shannon’s current focus is on guiding women through this time using community-based virtual workshops. One of these workshops, geared towards domestic violence survivors, drew over 100 attendees when it ran in November; another four-week workshop on grief held last month filled its 20 slots quickly. As a First Nations woman, Shannon also acknowledges the importance of supporting Indigenous communities through the particular grief they’re facing after losing Elders to COVID-19.
Nadia Gilan, a South Asian woman, moved to Vancouver for work just before the pandemic. Her anxiety has worsened since then. Gilan has seen the lack of tailored mental health education for specific communities impact her own family and believes that more preventative outreach from the government would go a long way.
“In racialized communities, I don’t think we have many conversations about mental health and the impact that something like COVID, or feeling isolated, [or hatred towards your community] could fundamentally have on your mental health.”
This is a point that 30-year-old Nidha Yaqub echoed while discussing how prevalent racism has interacted with the work and life uncertainty caused by the pandemic. “It’s really problematic, I think. Being a person of colour... I feel like everyone is really at a point where they’re really overwhelmed and no one knows what’s going to happen,” she said.
Jami Watson, a 42-year-old disabled single mom, works at a big box store in Coquitlam. Watson has profound to severe hearing loss and normally reads lips, but after mask-wearing was mandated in the province, she started experiencing more difficulties at work than she ever had before.
“Having to wear a mask 40 hours a week at work has completely cut off any really solid communication abilities that I have, which has been very exhausting and very trying,” she said. The stress amplified her pre-existing PTSD, which she had from prior trauma related to sexual violence — another experience she relates back to being a woman moving through the world.
Watson says she’s relieved to still have her job, even if it means near-constant interactions with customers who get angry and agitated when she can’t understand them the first time they ask her a question.
“I feel like I’ve become an educator of what disabilities are, but I’m exhausted. I’m very, very tired. And it can be shocking how people feel about disability and their lack of empathy towards it,” she said. “So that has definitely affected my mental health.”
Amy Cornish, a young woman working as a fundraiser for an arts organization in Vancouver, had just been hired when the pandemic hit. Cornish says she has worried near-constantly about the prospect of being laid off over the past 12 months.
“It really felt like for quite a while I was fundraising to save my job, which is a stressful position to be in,” she said.
Cornish’s anxiety isn’t unfounded: women bore the brunt of job losses across Canada last spring, driven by their participation in frontline service jobs. According to a new report from RBC that came out in early March, as of January almost 500,000 Canadian women who lost their jobs during the pandemic remain unemployed.
Low-earning women of colour have consistently been the hardest hit. And these layoffs and job-related anxieties are a heavy contributor to mental health struggles, according to the BCWHF report.
Women have also been slower to re-enter the workforce. Nationally, almost 100,000 women over 20-years-old have exited it entirely, compared with fewer than 10,000 men. Though upcoming vaccinations might bring back some of these jobs, many women will be left behind if further action is not taken, write Dawn Desjardins and Carrie Freestone, authors of the RBC report.
But the formal work women do — and the stressors that come with it — is just one aspect of the much broader issue of women’s labour contributions to the economy. Before the pandemic, women in B.C. were already doing six million hours per week in unpaid caretaking.
“I can guarantee that that’s gone up substantially since the start of the pandemic,” said Greening. “And so you start to think about the anxiety of and the challenges of caretaking. And 73 per cent of women reported negative health outcomes from those increased responsibilities and increased anxiety as a result.”
“I feel a little bit like I’ve lost my freedom in my own life since COVID came to town,” said 53-year-old Laura Dupont, describing the unequal distribution of labour in her home. “There’s no breaks, I can’t get away from home anymore.”
Dupont recalled a recent work meeting with a young mom. The woman was forced to sit in her car for their two-hour video meeting, just so she wouldn’t be constantly interrupted with caretaking tasks — even though her husband was home.
Women from across the province are not only experiencing worsening mental health due to these factors and more. The report from the BC Women’s Health Foundation also found that 40 per cent of these women do not have access to the mental health support they need.
The RBC report stressed the importance of “reskilling” programs — training initiatives to help workers in obsolete fields transition to other types of work — to an inclusive recovery.
“More options for affordable childcare would also help many lower-earning mothers get back to work,” the report reads. “But it’s no solution if they don’t have jobs to return to.”
For those who do have jobs, proactive support is essential, Catherine said. They acknowledge that employers have done a lot to try and remove the stigma surrounding mental health, but that concentrated outreach efforts are sorely needed right now.
“Women and non-binary folks maybe might not feel comfortable enough to approach management with concerns [around their mental health], even if management will probably be okay with it,” they said.
Many of the women The Tyee spoke to for this story expressed how it felt difficult or unappealing to reach out for help, especially over Zoom.
Quality mental health support needs to permeate the local level so that women feel comfortable accessing it within their community, Dupont added.
British Columbians may be able to access services like counselling and therapy through their local hospital or mental health clinic, but this requires a doctor’s referral and may involve a months-long wait. The private system is not covered by provincial health care and can be cost-prohibitive for women who do not have benefits through work.
McMullan recently joined her husband’s expansive health insurance, which included therapy funding for spouses, and has now been accessing counselling services that have really helped with her anxiety. Running her own business, it’s something that she would never have had access to otherwise.
But the process of finding a therapist who is a good fit can be more complex for other women.
“For a racialized person to be able to speak to a therapist from a racialized background, someone who understands the negative and traumatic effects of racism from their own personal experience, makes a massive, positive impact in the success of their treatment,” said Shannon.
“The government should be doing the work to ensure more BIPOC therapists are available to the community by funding outreach services, education pipelines to attract BIPOC students into the mental health care field and ensuring financial support to community organizations, groups and collectives who are already doing the work for their people.”
Greening emphasizes the importance of a gender-conscious, intersectional recovery plan.
“We need policymakers to invest in economic initiatives that are going to address the impact this pandemic has had on women,” she said. She isn’t alone in thinking this — groups like YWCA have been lobbying for months for Canada to adopt a feminist recovery strategy. Their many policy recommendations include establishing a gender advisory council and ensuring that childcare is a key part of recovery planning.
Dr. Liisa Galea, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, adds that more money and effort need to be channelled into learning about the impact that the pandemic has had on women, both physically and mentally. The government needs to provide incentives to researchers to do this kind of work. “We’re not going to get to the answers unless we have that lens on there,” she said. Only eight per cent of health research funding in B.C. goes to women’s health.
Otherwise, the dismissal of the importance of women’s health and women’s roles in the provincial workforce will present a significant economic cost to the province. Already, women missing work due to health reasons — the four main ones being menstruation, menopause, migraines and mental health — costs B.C. $2.6 billion per year.
With all this in mind, how the government charts the way forward now will make all the difference for women for years to come, Greening said.
“We need to be thinking about women, and how we want them to be able to participate meaningfully in our economy moving forward, not just because of how they’ve been impacted, but because I would argue we can’t actually have a strong economy that we can recover on without it.”
Greening is quick to own up to her own mental health struggles. As a single mother to a tireless five-year-old, the conclusions of her organization’s report hit close to home, she explained as she gently placated her son with snacks and an iPad game.
“I think it’s important for us to remind women that we shouldn’t suffer quietly, alone,” she said. “And that we need to create a moment of solidarity and being able to see each other in one another, to ensure that we have compassion in our recovery efforts from this — and that we have compassion in making sure that we don’t lose sight of one another during these times.”