It’s a turbulent time here in B.C., and not just meteorologically speaking.
Nasty weather, natural disasters and reports of relentless toxic drug deaths can weigh heavily on people’s mental health. Throw in ongoing pandemic pressures — including a new variant of concern — and it’s a perfect storm of stress.
In 2020, governments around the world were forced to implement various restrictive measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. What everyone first thought was going to be a few weeks or months of isolation has turned into nearly two years of shifting public health orders and British Columbians are feeling the strain.
A recent study found that pandemic-associated social distancing requirements are likely to increase the risk of developing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The study showed the decrease in mental well-being was associated with isolation during lockdowns and quarantining, and the social tension that occurs due to being cooped up with family members.
Youth are being hit particularly hard. A Canadian online survey called QuaranTEENing conducted in the middle of last year analyzed the mental health of more than 1,000 youth aged 13 to 19. Researchers asked teens how they were feeling about school, home, their parents and friends, and important milestones such as graduation and sports events. Participants reported an increase in psychological stress.
“This theme shows the damaging emotional toll of the pandemic in participants’ lives,” the study said.
“Adolescents articulated their concern for safety, including being uncomfortable with physical touch, fear of public spaces, worry for others’ well-being and feeling anxious to leave the house. Feeling broken down and at a loss was the most common sentiment among participants, who reported a loss of independence, happiness and motivation. Feeling trapped and not excited to wake up, with thoughts of worthlessness and hopelessness, was also evident.”
However, there were signs of resilience, too, with youth surveyed reporting that coping methods such as increasing physical exercise or getting together with friends outdoors improved their outlooks.
The Tyee reached out to three experts working in the mental health field to talk about ways to lower distress as we enter our second pandemic winter.
Dr. Joseph Puyat is a scientist at the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences and an assistant professor with the UBC School of Population and Public Health. Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc is the director of the UBC School of Nursing and the executive director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre. Andrew Baxter holds a master’s degree in social work and is an instructor of mental health literacy at the faculty of education at UBC.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: How do you think COVID-19 has affected the mental health of the general population? On one hand, we’ve seen an increase in marriages, pregnancies and pet adoptions, but also a rise in depression and anxiety. What’s going on?
Dr. Joseph Puyat: I think that a pandemic is a double-edged sword when it comes to that. We’ve also seen a rise in domestic violence and abuse just because people are living very close and have no other chance to have space. These days, it’s better to take it a bit slow and adjust gradually. And also, of course, to continue the activities that we find pleasurable.
For those with moderate to severe depressive symptoms, they really need help from mental health professionals. But the majority of the population are experiencing mild to moderate [symptoms], and things like exercise would really help prevent worsening symptoms.
Studies have also shown that children and youth are the ones severely affected by the pandemic because they’re still developing, and they need a lot of interaction with their social environment to fully develop. During the pandemic, many of these sources of positive social interaction were taken away from them.
Aside from counselling, what are some other things people can do to maintain their mental health?
Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc: The pandemic has had a significant cost. Most people know someone who either got really sick or they lost someone — because of the pandemic or because of the opioid or fentanyl drug supply poisoning crisis. And then you add to that the other states of emergency in B.C., which include the forest fires, heat domes and now floods... huge loss and trauma goes with that, so how do you navigate that?
I think that a key part is actually taking the opportunity to try to reach out and maintain your social circles. Connect with your family and others. It’s harder because you don’t just bump into each other in public places anymore. You have to be more intentional about it.
Make sure that you have positive experiences and that you’re also getting exercise and enough rest and sleep — that you have a meaningful occupation or meaningful activities in your life that feed your soul.
It’s OK to feel a level of distress about what’s happening, because it is distressing. And to remember that how people look on the internet, TikTok or their social media is the polished good day and doesn’t necessarily take into account everybody’s bad days. What you see on social media is to some extent partial and a performance, so it’s OK to give yourself a little space and not feel like you have to have everything completely together.
How does mental health literacy impact the way we think about the negative emotions?
Andrew Baxter: It doesn’t matter whether you have diabetes, cancer, heart disease or depression. If you know more about it, you do better with it.
Awareness is great, but if you’re aware of depression, so what? I can be aware of algebra, but still don’t know how to do it. Depression is different than having a low mood, but how is that different from breaking up with a significant other or losing a job? Figuring out where clinical depression starts, and normal low moods begin — that’s literacy.
[When it comes to negative emotions], you feel more in control by taking action, ownership or responsibility over those feelings. By taking action, people do two things: number one, they help those that they’re taking action with, and number two, it gives them a greater sense of autonomy and control. People do better when they feel more in control and that they’re doing something rather than allowing [their negative emotions] to passively wash over them.
Most people, they’re adapting because we’re adaptive and we’re doing OK. It’s not great. It’s not comfortable. We’re all waiting for this to be over. But, at the same time, we’re making adaptations.
I recommend the Thrive 5 method of maintaining mental well-being during the isolating winter months. These five researched-backed points suggest that the following activities support mental wellness: exercising more, sleeping soundly, eating well, helping others and spending time with friends and family.
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