June 20, 2022

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Mental health pandemic may possibly continue for years to come

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COVID-19 has left Canadians in uncharted territory, with the alarming news a mental health pandemic possibly continuing for several years to come, according to new research by Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC).

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Despite waning fears of contracting the virus, anxiety lingers. Almost a quarter of Canadians report still struggling with high anxiety related to the pandemic.

Gustavo Betini
Gustavo Betini Photo by supplied /Gustavo Betini

“Levels of anxiety and depression since the pandemic are up to five times higher than pre-pandemic levels,” reports Gustavo Betini, a PhD student in the School of Public Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo, who has spent the past year studying the mental health effects of COVID-19.

“There’s a sense in the population that the pandemic is going away and everything is going to be fine,” says Betini, but mental health data isn’t as optimistic – almost 30,000 Canadians have participated in the study since 2020, and the data shows that high levels of anxiety and depression have not abated.

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It’s not only fear of the virus pummelling mental health, but also the social isolation and economic downturn caused by the pandemic, according to Betini, whose research internship with MHRC is supported by Mitacs, which helps solve business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions. He’s been able to take a deep dive into a first-of-its-kind national mental health database.

Dr. Joanne Frederick
Dr. Joanne Frederick Photo by supplied /Dr. Joanne Frederick

We can’t just recover instantly from the mental traumas just because case loads of a virus decrease, says Dr. Joanne Frederick, of jflcounseling.org. “When people remain in a heightened period of anxiety for a long duration — over one year, close to two in the case of the pandemic — it’s not easy to turn off a mental switch, and tell your brain, ‘threat over- return back to normal.’

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“Throughout the pandemic, there have been times of ebbs and flows where we thought things were getting better and then they became worse,” says Frederick, “and virtually everyone’s life was turned upside down, whether it meant losing a loved one, isolation, loss of a job, financial difficulty, loss of hobbies, social life, celebrations, connection with family, travel, or in some cases, many of these factors.”

Many continue to experience post-traumatic stress or anxiety even after the imminent threat has largely passed, she adds.

The frontline health-care sector is experiencing the highest rates of mental health struggles, with 33% reporting a diagnosis for anxiety, according to Betini. Other groups struggling include young adults (16-24 years old), women, especially women with young children at home, and those who identified themselves as members of the LGBTQ2S+ community.

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“We may be emerging from the pandemic, but we’re still in uncharted territory,” says Brittany Saab, MHRC national coordinator. “Canadians will require mental health interventions for some time to come. The more we understand the landscape, the better prepared we will be to determine a successful path forward.”

It’s very difficult to predict what is coming next, adds Betini: “We have not had a pandemic at this scale in more than 100 years, and we have little information about the mental health of the population in the years that followed the Spanish Flu of 1918.”

Data collection efforts to chart this unchartered territory will be continue for another three years which will provide critical insight on how the general population will respond.

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But there is some good news: Two thirds of Canadians indicate that they are resilient; they believe that they will be able to bounce back once the pandemic is over, says Betini, “so we might see these anxiety and depression levels going back to pre-pandemic levels faster than expected.”

Betini adds that pandemics are likely to become more common in the next few decades because of climate change, among other factors, so data is critical to understanding mental health problems and developing measures that can help people, including informing public health guidelines to minimize the impact of future extreme events on the mental health of Canadians. 

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The pandemic was and continues to be a traumatizing event, says Dr. Joanne Frederick, author of Copeology: Exploring coping techniques.

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Many of us became accustomed to a less “in person” social/professional life, and feeling more safe cocooning. “When the ‘all clear’ bell suddenly goes off and people have to be concerned about what they are wearing, what they look like, trips they are or are not taking, in-person office politics, weddings, dinner parties and more, because many of us are out of practice… re-entering can cause a number of negative feelings, anxiety being a key emotion,” says Frederick, a counsellor with jflcounseling.org.

Those who suffer from social anxiety, natural introverts, those with health anxiety, and people who have generalized anxiety disorder are more likely to analyze, anticipate, and feel nervous about revisiting “new” but former ways of living, she says.

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As with any challenge start small, suggests Frederick. If you are flying for the first time, don’t make it an overseas trip. Take a short, domestic trip and see how you feel.

When you want to re-enter the social arena, start with a dinner at a quiet restaurant with no more than two trusted friends who you feel totally at ease with, says Frederick. Instead of going to a major concert at an arena, start by seeing a local band at a cafe.

“As you begin to gain confidence doing smaller things with people you know and trust, you will gain confidence and be able to move on to new challenges with situations that are not as innately comfortable.”

Frederick also recommends:

  • Try to move at your own pace
  • Remove the fear of missing out
  • Don’t compare yourself to what others are able to do
  • Do be willing to take small steps to go beyond your comfort zone to get to the next phase

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