Thousands of volunteers come forward to offer mental health support during COVID-19
Helping others effective coping strategy to reduce pandemic stress, psychologist says
As Canadians continue to grapple with an unprecedented level of stress as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, thousands of volunteers have come forward to offer emotional support to others — a move experts say could benefit their own mental well-being as much as the people they're helping.
"All of us are in this process of figuring out 'What is the new normal?'" said Alisa Simon, senior vice-president of innovation at Kids Help Phone.
Simon's other title — chief youth officer — reflects the fact that for more than 30 years, Kids Help Phone has been a national helpline for children and young adults.
But with the onset of COVID-19, the service has been deluged with calls and texts from grown-ups feeling overwhelmed.
"They started with, 'I'm so sorry. I'm not a kid. Can I still use this?'" Simon told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC podcast The Dose, in a recent episode about COVID-19 and mental health.
Although there are helplines and distress services for adults in Canada, there's no single national line, so services tend to be "fragmented," she said.
"There is a huge gap in the fact that adults, parents, front-line workers are experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress right now. They don't know where to turn."
At the same time, Kids Help Phone was dealing with a huge jump in COVID-19-related calls from children and young people.
In response, the organization launched a texting service specifically for adults and put out a call for volunteers who, after screening and training, could provide desperately needed support from their homes in this time of physical distancing.
More than 8,000 people have applied to fill those roles, in which they serve both children and adults, according to Simon.
"It is tremendous," she said.
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Importance of empathy
That's a prime example of "empathic response " — a behaviour that has been shown to help people preserve their own mental health during mass crises, said Dr. Anita DeLongis, a psychologist and professor at the Centre for Health and Coping Studies at the University of British Columbia.
"This is a moment in time when our empathy is really important," said DeLongis, who studied how people reacted psychologically and socially during past global health threats, including SARS, West Nile Virus and H1NI.
"Mental health issues and having to cope with the stress of this, it's impacting everyone's daily life. Regardless of whether you know someone who is sick from COVID, we all are struggling with the changes to our lives."
Since March, DeLongis and her research team have been tracking how Canadians are faring mentally during COVID-19 through weekly online surveys, and they have about 7,000 participants enrolled in the study so far.
Research has shown that people who demonstrate a high level of empathy are more likely to comply with public health guidelines, such as handwashing and physical distancing, she said, because they're motivated to protect others who are more vulnerable, such as the elderly, from becoming ill during a pandemic.
But responding with empathy also "does seem to be a really key strategy" for maintaining mental well-being, DeLongis said, because it gives people a sense of control during an uncertain time. It also appears to help stop people from ruminating about COVID-19 — a "normal response to an abnormal situation," she said, but one that exacerbates anxiety and feelings of depression.
If you're focused on somebody else, you can get outside of yourself and outside of your head. That support-giving in a time like this can be a really critically adaptive coping behaviour.- Dr. Anita DeLongis
"If you're focused on somebody else, you can get outside of yourself and outside of your head," she said. "That support-giving in a time like this can be a really critically adaptive coping behaviour.
"It's the perfect example of the kinds of simple, community-based interventions that can make a real difference, giving people the opportunity to help others and to be helped."
Volunteers can definitely derive a mental health benefit, Simon said.
"The people who volunteer for us find meaning in being there for others," she said. "But also … the act of supporting others can be therapeutic and help the volunteer as they look to cope with the impact of COVID-19 on their [own] lives."
WATCH | Canadians' mental health suffering because of pandemic:
No one needs to go through this alone
Community-based interventions — whether through a helpline such as Kids Help Phone or informal online support groups — are a critical part of managing the mental health toll COVID-19 is expected to take, DeLongis said.
Federal and provincial governments have invested millions of dollars into that aspect of the pandemic alone — including funding for Kids Help Phone. Experts aren't yet able to estimate how bad the mental health fallout will be.
What's clear, DeLongis said, is that almost everyone will need "some extra support."
Ensuring access to psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers will be critical for some — including those with pre-existing mental health problems — but the majority of the general population likely won't require professional treatment.
"For most of us, there's going to be some anxiety, stress [at] elevated levels, but we might not have a clinical depression," she said.
Many people will get adequate support from their family or friends, she said.
"But that's not going to meet all the needs," making access to 24/7 support services powered by volunteers vital, she said.
Both DeLongis and Simon say that a big part of that assistance is simply giving people a place to express their feelings, normalize them and help them recognize the abilities they already have to deal with the stresses they're facing.
'Help available 24/7'
"A lot of what I find we're doing, right now, is trying to remind people of the coping strategies that they've done in the past or that might work for them," Simon said.
"Because, right now, for a lot of us it feels like 'there's nothing I can do. I'm stuck in my house.'"
But support services can help people remember there are things that made them feel better in pre-pandemic times that are still possible to do, whether it's taking a walk, reading a book, writing in a journal, singing or gathering with friends — even if that gathering has to happen online.
You do not have to go through anything by yourself.- Alisa Simon, of Kids Help Phone
Thanks largely to the influx of volunteers, no one needs to go through this pandemic alone, Simon said.
"What I want every person across Canada to know is that there is support and help available 24/7," she said.
"You do not have to go through anything by yourself."
Where to turn for support
Counsellors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for children, teens and adults at Kids Help Phone.
Children, teens and young adults:
- Call 1-800-668-6868.
- Text TALK to 686868.
- Text WELLNESS to 741741.
- Text FRONTLINE to 741741.
With files from Dr. Brian Goldman and Dawna Dingwall