COVID-19’s impact on mental health

The World Health Organization's guide to coping with stress during the pandemic.

While many of us are trying to combat the coronavirus by practicing social distancing to keep us physically safe, experts say it is equally paramount to take steps to keep ourselves mentally safe.

According to Statistics Canada, more than three million Canadians either lost their jobs or were forced to work significantly less than usual in March because of COVID-19.

“The stressors that come when we are trying to provide for our family and we are feeling like we don’t have that job security, we don’t have that financial security, stressors are massively increased at this time,” says Dana Collins, Occupational therapist from Cedar Tree Therapy in Whitby. “This is a factor in the development of mental health challenges.”

Morneau Shepell, a technology-enabled HR services provider released its monthly Mental Health Index on April 2.

According to the report, “Canadians are feeling unprecedented levels of anxiety” because of the pandemic.

The report adds that there has been a “significant” deterioration in mental health when compared to pre-COVID-19 benchmarks.

It also found the pandemic has “caused a dramatic 16 per cent drop in Canadians’ mental health.”

The main stressors leading to mental health concerns are the financial impact the pandemic is causing followed by the fear of a loved one passing away or getting infected. Uncertainty around how the virus will affect immediate family is looming on everyone’s mind, according to the report.

Young people are finding this time particularly stressful, according to Purnima Sundar, executive director and director of knowledge mobilization at the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health.

“We have never had this level of social isolation that our young people are experiencing,” she says. “Kids are not in school, kids are not able to see their friends, so there is a routine issue but there’s also a lack of social connection. Some of that is mediated by technology but it’s not really the same thing and after a while that can start to wear on a young person.”

Though uncertainty is looming large on the horizon, Collins says routine is still important.

“Having a routine gives us a sense of control, a sense of predictability in a world where there’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “It gives us back the control. Routine is a huge tip for coping.”

To help youngsters tide over their disrupted routine and lack of social connection, Sundar advises them to stay connected with their friends in the outside world through technology.

“Encouraging interaction over technology is really important because it helps them stay connected with their friends,” she says. “We spend an awful lot of time telling our kids to get off of their devices and now we’re prompting them to get on them so they can stay connected.”

Collins advises having meals at set times, getting in physical exercise and being grateful for all good things which have happened.

“Having a regular practice of gratitude changes our lens with which we see the world and it keeps us looking for the good in all of this. We definitely cannot change the situation, but we can change the way we view it,” adds Collins.

Sundar also advises against focusing too much on the infections and fatalities, which can be harmful.

“I think that information is good, too much information can be too much,” she says. “Keeping to credible sources is really important…not to look at those numbers constantly.”

Collins recommends having one activity you know you can count on when things are not going so well.

“Having a self-regulating activity in your back pocket for when you’re feeling really overwhelmed, really anxious and not in a good place, that you know can shift you back towards your calm centre,” she says. “It could be different for everyone. It could be reading, working out, drawing, cooking. Anything you know that has the power to shift your mood even just a little bit.”

And it can be something as simple as deep breathing.