British Columbia

Mental illness will be 'next wave' of COVID-19 pandemic, epidemiologist says

An epidemiologist says social isolation could lead to a range of mental health issues as people face the prospect of living under the current COVID-19 restrictions for months.

Months-long isolation will take its toll on people's mental health, experts say

A runner crosses an empty street in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday. This week, public health officials in British Columbia announced that physical distancing orders would remain in place until May. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

An epidemiologist says social isolation could lead to a range of mental health issues as people face the prospect of living under the current COVID-19 restrictions for months.

Sandro Galea, dean at Boston University's School of Public Health, says the isolation as well as the uncertainty about how long it will last and how the pandemic will play out can all contribute to increased anxiety.

"We humans are ultimately social. We're social creatures and we do need interaction — physical and social — with others. 

This week, public health officials in British Columbia announced that physical distancing orders would remain in place until May.

"I do think it's [increasingly] less likely that we'll be able to get back to more normal life, which I miss a lot, before at least the summer," said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. "And then we need to be preparing for the potential of a second wave in the fall."

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides the COVID-19 update on March 26, 2020. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Premier John Horgan also acknowledged that the side effects of the pandemic response are playing a role in people's state of mind.

"Anxiety is high. Particularly everyone knows that financial issues are always challenging for individuals, families."

Watch: B.C. Premier John Horgan says it's going to take 'extraordinary resilience' to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

B.C. Premier John Horgan says it’s going to take ‘extraordinary resilience from British Columbians to get through’ the COVID-19 pandemic. 1:02

Galea, who studied the impacts of quarantine during the SARS epidemic in Toronto, says isolation can contribute to a range of mental disorders like anxiety and depression, but can also trigger heavier consumption of drugs and alcohol, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We do know that these go up after other disasters and we'd expect them to go up substantially now that this is affecting the whole world."

People with history of mental illness at risk

Ryan Phillips, a former professional hockey player living in Vancouver, says he's already noticed the impacts on his own mental health.

"My whole routine has been pretty much kind of thrown off due to this isolation mode," he said. "It's almost like COVID-19 is playing a lot of mind games with a lot of people with millions of people around the world." 

He's suffered multiple concussions in his career and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago.

"It's just not knowing, it's the uncertainty that's causing a lot of the anxiety with people and having to prepare yourself for a few months of this isolation and social distancing."

Galea says those with a history of mental illness and other marginalized people are more at risk of struggling with the current status quo, but that pandemic-related stressors like job loss and caring for at-risk children and parents could put even more people at risk.

He says educating people about their risk of mental illness is crucial.

"I think it's actually very important that we are recognizing that mental illness is going to be the next wave of this epidemic and I think it's very important that we de-stigmatize mental illness."

This week, the premier said that the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions has put in place a plan to support mental health service providers dealing with an increasing workload.

Watch: UBC psychologist Steven Taylor gives advice on how to stay connected during a pandemic.

Dr. Steven Taylor, author of "The psychology of pandemics: Preparing for the next global outbreak of infectious disease", explains more. 0:52

In the meantime, Galea's advice is to avoid being socially distant, despite the order to be physically distant.

Phillips says focusing on the present moment and staying connected through social media has been helpful. 

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