How do we know when we need help?

Many of us have experienced loss, grief and isolation during our two years of living in a pandemic. Whether it’s missing gatherings with family and friends or attending a funeral via Zoom, we have been affected by how we come together with loved ones and connect in everyday life. 

Scott Aylwin, senior director of addiction and mental health at Covenant Health, believes that no one has escaped the impact of the pandemic in terms of well-being and mental health. But these impacts vary greatly from person to person and are not all negative. 

The work environment has been turned upside down for some, while others have seen little change. While one person might be thriving as they work from home — feeling more productive and enjoying a quieter environment — another individual may be finding the same situation almost intolerable. Others, such as healthcare or essential services staff, have experienced two years of unrelenting stress during COVID-19, Scott explains. 

“For everyone in health care, this pandemic has been a marathon at the pace of a sprint and with no clear indication as to where the finish line is,” says Scott.

“This mixture of stress, fear, uncertainty, sickness and death is compounded by the fact that our usual coping mechanisms and support systems have been disrupted or lost entirely. This is a perfect storm to tax our ability to cope.”

Scott says COVID-19 has brought renewed attention to mental health and substance use concerns.  

“The one positive during the pandemic is that the public is more open to talking about mental health and the impacts that many people are experiencing.”

Read on as Scott shares some mental health and wellness tips and insights. 

Is there a risk that people think mental health struggles are part of pandemic life and don’t seek help?

I think that risk exists regardless of the pandemic. Any of us might experience deteriorating mental health without realizing we have developed a condition that can be treated. Often, something occurs to act as a catalyst to seek help. It could be a parent or a spouse expressing concern about your welfare, or perhaps things at work have started to go badly or excessive substance use has resulted in negative social or legal circumstances. But I think it is important to also pay attention to some potential positives arising from the pandemic. Perhaps we have all been forced toward a new normal that involves all of us being a bit more attentive to our general level of coping and building resilience into our daily lives. That would actually be a positive outcome.

What are the biggest mental health challenges that you’ve seen in the past two years?

Substance use in the community has been very high and has had very serious impacts for many individuals and families. Many families have seen existing issues get worse over the course of the pandemic. Police tell us there has been an increase in domestic violence throughout the pandemic, and our EMS partners report more suicides and more violence generally in the community. The adolescent population has had unique impacts, with increased isolation and loss of social connection from missing out on school and normal activities.

Note: Research shows a connection between mental health and substance use. According to a study by Statistics Canada, Canadians who reported lower self-perceived mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic were more likely to report increased use of cannabis, alcohol and tobacco.

How do I know if what I’m feeling is more serious than feeling blue?

This is difficult to know precisely, but these questions will help you know if you could benefit from help:

  • Am I feeling markedly different than my usual self (e.g., sometimes I can feel blue, but now I have bouts of tears)?
  • Is my emotional state interrupting my ability to attend work/school/normal activities? 
  • Is this persisting beyond a few weeks?

If I’m feeling down, what can I do to get support?

Informal supports are almost always the most effective. If we’re not experiencing a serious illness, our social network is what supports us most of the time. Connect with those closest to you, if at all possible. When your issues start to impact your ability to get through your typical routines, you should rely on health professionals.

What are some lifestyle changes that could help improve my mental health during times of loneliness or loss?

One of the most effective things that you can do for your mental health is to improve your physical health. Engaging in physical activity has positive benefits across the board. Just even going for a walk can be beneficial to your brain health. If you could do only one thing, improving your physical health would be the easiest and most impactful change.

If I know someone is feeling down, what can I do to help?

People sometimes think that they need to “do something” to be helpful or that they need to be a mental health expert to help. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most of the time people just need to have a listening and compassionate ear. The impact we have on people is never related to the education we have or the important people we might know. Instead, we have positive impact on those around us just by the way we carry ourselves and the way we make ourselves available in an authentic way. And everyone can do that.

Addressing our mental health can still be a bit of a taboo subject in some circles. What would you say to people who are struggling to address it?

It’s true that mental health remains a topic in the shadows for some groups. It does make it very hard indeed to lean on one’s immediate circle of support when that circle does not wish to accept that these struggles are real. This speaks to the value of having diversity in our personal support network — work friends, neighbourhood supports and faith communities — but this can truly be difficult in some cases.

Where to get help

Mental Health Helpline: 1.877.303.2642; staffed 24/7 by clinical staff

Health Link: Call 811; staffed 24/7 by healthcare workers

Addiction Helpline: 1.866.332.2322; staffed 24/7

Kids Help Phone: 1.800.668.6868; staffed 24/7 for children, teens and young adults

Kids Help Phone resources: Available for children, teens and young adults affected by the COVID-19 pandemic 

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