Taking care of mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

MANITOULIN – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused mass disruptions to daily life in Canada and around the world; in the midst of this, perhaps more than ever, it is important to maintain a healthy state of mental well-being and learn strategies to manage mental health before the crisis escalates any further.

“It’s too early to tell what the full impacts will be. We only got sent home recently and while there has been a few people reaching out, I think we’ll really start to see things change in the next week, week and a half,” said Delaney Campbell, mental health counsellor at Noojmowin Teg Health Centre, who is also adjusting to working from home.

Noojmowin Teg’s mental health team is still providing counselling services via phone and video meetings during this time as a way of continuing to aid those in need while also contributing to the important physical distancing practices in place in Canada.

“When we don’t have structured patterns for working at home, it might be okay for a few days but then it might set in that you’re not being as productive, not able to work a full-time job and watch your kids at the same time. That can cause feelings of guilt and you might start missing the infrastructure of daily life,” she said.

This is why experts recommend designating certain spots within the home as work-only spaces, as well as keeping the same patterns such as waking up at a steady time, getting dressed and taking care of personal hygiene needs. Sleep is a key portion within all aspects of well-being.

Away from the pressures of work, the uncertainty and lack of control over the state of the world can increase anxiety and worries during daily life.

Based on her experiences so far, Ms. Campbell said only some people are worried about getting sick themselves; many more are concerned about the broader implications. 

“Young people believe that they’re relatively safe (from getting severe symptoms). But a lot of them are more worried about the guilt of having contributed to the spread of the disease or giving it to someone who is more vulnerable,” she said.

Worry does not have to be seen only as a negative emotion. In fact, worry is essential to the brain’s function because it helps people plan ahead and manage risks. However, when one starts worrying about hypothetical issues, worry can quickly become unhelpful.

Being worried about the spread of disease, for instance, can be constructive because there are things one can do to change the outcome of the virus’ spread such as washing hands, minimizing in-person contacts and following public health directives.

Conversely, worrying about the global spread of COVID-19 or other countries’ decisions regarding the virus is not helpful because an individual does not have a way of managing the decisions of foreign governments and their health policies.

Mental well-being must be viewed alongside physical and spiritual health, such as getting fresh air and exercise, keeping a healthy diet and using traditional medicines if desired (Noojmowin Teg is an aboriginal health access centre, so promoting the use of traditional medicines where appropriate is part of its mandate).

In tougher times like these, Ms. Campbell said reaching out to community members, while keeping physical distancing in mind, can be beneficial. This can include offering support or just being there for a conversation.

“Older people, who experience loneliness at higher rates on a regular basis, are going to be experiencing that more these days,” said Ms. Campbell. “Our routines might be different now but we can create new ones to build that sense of connection with each other.”

When asked about the rise of online communities on Manitoulin Island where people are publicly shaming those who are not practicing self-isolation after returning from places where COVID-19 has spread, Ms. Campbell was sympathetic but discouraged that practice.

“Shaming others is rarely a useful tool at our disposal. I will say, though, that these people are probably trying to gather some element of control over the world around them, but that’s not the good kind of worry. People are trying to control the actions of others and you just can’t do that,” said Ms. Campbell. “It’s not only ineffective but mean-spirited too. I can’t imagine it being a strong community resource.”

As for people who are trying to stay busy, Ms. Campbell said this was a good time to try new hobbies or get outside for fresh air away from others—Manitoulin’s low population density makes it is easy to enjoy the outdoors away from crowds.

There are also online support networks for people of all ages who are trying to learn new skills or get mental health support.

People who care for others can have a challenging time, especially when these activities conflict with physical distancing directives. The Ontario Caregiver Organization has an online support group that hosts several one-hour discussions each week on its website, OntarioCaregiver.ca/find-support/peer-support. 

Youth in Manitoulin District can also access remote support through Compass Child and Youth Mental Health Services. Full details are available on its website, CompassNE.ca.

Ms. Campbell suggested two self-directed services—Big White Wall and BounceBack. 

BigWhiteWall.com is an anonymous service that offers mental health support from both peers and professionals. There are also courses and tips on managing mental and physical health and the service is moderated by professional counsellors.

BounceBackOntario.ca is a platform to help people aged 15 or older learn new life skills to help manage their mental health. The service is run by the Canadian Mental Health Association and also offers personal coaching grounded in cognitive behavioural therapy.

Having people in close domestic quarters can also lead to increased family tensions over time. Family violence is never acceptable and there are resources for those who become victims of this behaviour.

Manitoulin Family Resources runs a 24-hour crisis line for women at 1-800-465-6788 and there is a North American assaulted women’s help line at 1-866-863-0511. Support for male victims of domestic violence can be found through the Canadian Centre for Men and Families at MenAndFamilies.org.

Elder Abuse Ontario runs a Seniors Safety Line which connects older adults who are being abused or at risk of being abuse with service providers. It also offers general information for family members and seniors and can be reached at 1-866-299-1011.