The high mental toll of the pandemic, and what to do about it

New research suggests the COVID-19 pandemic is exacting a mounting cost on our collective mental health. But there are ways to ease the strain ahead of the holiday season.

Research suggests the pandemic is having a powerful impact on our mental health

A woman and her dogs enjoy a warm day earlier this week. Experts say exercise can help ease mental strain. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

There is sadness, but most of all boredom.

Linda Foy, an octogenarian grandmother of three who lives in Montreal West, recently decided to knit a hat for her daughter because, well, she couldn't think of anything better to do.

Behind the ennui lurks frustration.

"I'm angry. I'm angry, and I don't know who I'm angry at," she said. "I'm not angry at [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau or [Premier François] Legault, or the Chinese. I'm not angry at anybody. I'm just angry that all of us are in this situation."

Like everyone else who lives in a so-called "red zone," Foy's family has had to scrub its Christmas tradition, which usually involves a lavish breakfast and plenty of conversation.

She saw it coming and understands why — one of her sons is a physician at the Montreal General Hospital — but it's still hard psychologically.

"It was so contradictory and the conditions were so ridiculous: 10 people here and 10 people there. I was really expecting there to be no Christmas and so I wasn't surprised. But the announcement made me face the reality, which I've been avoiding for many months of COVID," Foy said.

The worst part? No hugs.

"I hate it," she said."We're very affectionate, very tactile, and I miss it terribly."

Foy says she is coping as best she can, like most Quebecers.

Her story is mirrored across the province: forced isolation, hopes of a normal-ish Christmas dashed, the stress and frustration of not knowing when it will all end.

The psychic toll is mounting as the pandemic drags on. Here's a look at exactly how it's affecting our collective mental health, and what can be done about it.

Growing problem

A pair of recent surveys hint at mounting distress in the province.

The Early Childhood Observatory recently published the results of a poll of parents with children under the age of six. It found 44 per cent of respondents said the pandemic is affecting their ability to stay calm around their kids, and 79 per cent said they had not sought out an external support service.

"This is very preoccupying, we know these parents are stressed and they can't count on their loved ones to help with their kids," said the observatory's Fannie Dagenais.

This week, a Université de Sherbrooke team, led by public health specialist Dr. Mélissa Généreux, released the second instalment in a longitudinal polling study it launched in the late summer.

The survey reached 8,500 adults in all regions of Quebec and was conducted from Nov. 6-18.

Nearly half the respondents aged 18 to 24 presented "significant symptoms of anxiety or major depression." About one-third of the health care workers surveyed demonstrated a high prevalence of the same, as did an increasing proportion of people who work at home.

Among the other findings:

  • One in four adults (one in two young adults) report symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety disorder or major depression. Men and young people are especially affected.
  • Suicidal ideation is twice as common, jumping from three to six per cent of responses since the summer.
  • Psychological disorders are much more present in Montreal.
  • Heavy drinking is on the rise among those 35 and over.
  • More than one-quarter of respondents perceive public health regulations as exaggerated and unclear.

What can be done

Marie-Claude Geoffroy, an assistant professor in youth psychology at McGill University who holds the Canada Research Chair in Youth Suicide Prevention, said staying connected is key — whether through a phone call, a text message, an email or a video chat.

"Let your friends know that you are there for them," she said.

Geoffroy is leading a team of researchers at McGill tracking a group of young adults. She found that young people who felt they have higher levels of social support reported fewer mental health problems.

She is planning to follow up with the same cohort this winter, to see how the pandemic has affected her findings.

Généreux, for her, part suggested raising an army of peer counselors.

"One thing I would suggest to people who are feeling not so bad is to get trained with the psychological first-aid training," she told CBC Quebec's Breakaway, citing the online offering from the Canadian Red Cross.

"This way, if you get the training you're going to feel much more comfortable to bring some support to people you may encounter. Your neighbours, family, friends, colleagues, that may display some signs of distress."

A pedestrian walks past a public art installation in Montreal in quiet contemplation. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Shirlette Wint, a psychotherapist and social worker based in Montreal, said moments of quiet, away from others, can be seen as "bittersweet," providing us with an opportunity for introspection.

"It's allowed a lot of people to really make some life-changing decisions," she said.

For some of her longtime patients, who struggled with anxiety before the pandemic, the upheaval of 2020 has created "a kind of comfort."

"They are not just being anxious for nothing," she said.

"It allows them also to feel supported because now it's the entire society that has the same concern."

While challenging and often upsetting, Wint said the commitment to following public guidelines should be seen as a chance to contribute to something larger than one's self.

"I see this really as: yes, it's sad, but it's an opportunity to express gratitude in so many different ways," she said.

Beyond that, one of the main ways to remain mentally healthy is to stay physically active.

The province has set up an online guide with ideas for how to stay mentally healthy.

Among the suggestions:

  • Do physical activities that enable you to relieve stress and eliminate tension.
  • Enjoy the little pleasures of life, like listening to music, reading or taking a warm bath.
  • If you live close to nature, take walks and breathe deeply and peacefully.

Where to get help

Quebec has expanded its 811 hotline to offer more assistance for anyone in need.

Other resources include:

with files from Chloe Ranaldi

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