Maintaining your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic
Kevin William Grant
Published on
April 14, 2021
Categories

You've found ways to make it this far during this COVID-19 pandemic. These suggestions will help you build compassion and resilience so you can find your path forward while protecting your mental health.

It is normal to be feeling increased levels of stress and anxiety due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As social gathering restrictions and economic shutdowns have remained in a place far longer than governments first anticipated, we understand that the activities and coping strategies you relied on to get through the past year may not be working as well as they used to. If you've been getting by but don't feel like things are getting better, try incorporating some coping tools into your routine.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact 911 (Canada) or your local emergency number immediately or present to your nearest emergency department. 

Stress & Anxiety

Coping strategies and personal assessment tools to help you manage your stress and anxiety as you adapt to the next normal.

It may be a while yet before we know the full measure of the impact of COVID-19 on our mental health. Still, preliminary surveys indicate that many Canadians are reporting higher levels of psychological distress. The current climate of fear, uncertainty, and disruption, combined with the lingering impact of social isolation, has taken a toll on their mental health. Others will say they have returned to the coping strategies that helped in the past. All of them say they wanted to share their experiences in the hope they can be of benefit to others.

Grief

Understand how the pandemic causes experiences of loss and grief and how to move forward in the face of uncertainty.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, communities are looking to build the "next to normal." At the same time, we are individually and collectively dealing with enormous loss and grief.

The experience of loss is one of the hardest things anyone can face. It can involve losing a loved one or a friend, a job, a routine, a hobby, or anything else that has left our lives. One of the most distressing things about the pandemic is the amount of loss that many of us must process.

The way we react to loss is called grief. Grief can affect our emotions, thoughts, behavior, and even how we feel physically. The way one person experiences grief might be very different from how someone else does. Grief reactions can include: 

  • Shock, disbelief, and confusion
  • Anger
  • Trouble concentrating and focusing on tasks
  • Altered patterns of eating and sleeping
  • Physical changes such as dizziness, headaches, or upset stomach
  • Sadness and yearning
  • Memories and thoughts about who or what have been lost
  • Withdrawing from usual activities

Grief is a normal and natural process after a loss but can be very painful to work through.

The way we outwardly express grief is through mourning. Mourning can take many forms, depending on the person and even varying among different cultures. Typical forms of mourning include crying and expressing grief through art or writing or rituals and religious practices such as prayer. 

Grief and mourning can be expressed individually, as a family, and even as a community. How long someone grieves may vary depending on the person's relationship to their loss. 

Grief can be emotionally overwhelming, which may lead us to try to avoid our strong feelings. However, mourning is an essential part of processing a loss. When we mourn healthily, we may gradually come to a deeper understanding of what the person or thing we lost meant to us, which helps to restore hope and motivation eventually. In this way, we can slowly re-engage in our daily lives – even if it is different than before.  

Although grief and mourning are normal responses to loss, they can persist and may overlap with traumatic experiences and reactions for some people. Loss can lead to significant and lasting mental health or substance use challenges. If you find that feelings of grief are overwhelming and seem "stuck," seek professional mental health support (for example, you can ask your doctor for a referral).

Loss

You may be experiencing one or more kinds of loss related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some of the things that people are grieving at this time.

Loss of a loved one: Many people have lost family members, friends or co-workers in recent months, either due to health complications caused by COVID-19 or for other reasons. Because of restrictions related to the pandemic, bereavement may be more complicated than in more usual times. For example, many people have been unable to be with a loved one before or during their death. Thinking of a family member dying alone can lead to intense feelings of guilt, anger and regret.

Similarly, when a person dies, aspects of mourning that are important for healthy coping might currently be unavailable. For example, it may be impossible to hold a funeral in the usual way or receive in-person support from family and friends. As a result, many people have been forced to find new ways to mourn.

Loss of a job: Many people have lost their job or income as a result of the pandemic. Restaurants, non-essential retail stores and other businesses have had to shut down, and many also face the risk of closing permanently. As well as the financial strain this is causing, it may also lead us to feel a loss of purpose and identity. For those fortunate enough to still be working, many must work from home and so must adapt to the loss of their usual working environment.

Loss of social connection: Physical distancing, isolation and quarantine practices mean that some people are at home alone, are unable to hug a loved one, or cannot provide in-person support to others who are grieving. Vacations and time off may have been cancelled or delayed, further limiting the ability to spend quality time with friends and family.

Loss of or harm to relationships: COVID-19 has led to unexpected relationship challenges for many people. New relationships might have broken off because of physical distancing; living in close quarters might have created or increased conflict between couples and among families; separated or divorced parents may be facing extra challenges with co-parenting or sharing custody.

Education or academic losses: Students may have lost important opportunities, including placements or co-op terms, summer employment to support school expenses, interrupted courses, and cancelled graduations, proms and other celebrations.

Loss experienced by health care providers: People who work in health care may be experiencing the deaths of patients or clients, or even of colleagues, due to COVID-19. Repeated losses of this kind are overwhelming. In addition, because the pandemic response has required health care workers to adapt quickly to new protocols and roles, many may experience a sense of dislocation and loss related to their familiar work practices and environments. Click here to see resources for health care providers.

Loss of rituals and routines: Currently, most of us are unable to do many of the things we would typically do on a daily, weekly or regular basis. From going to work to spending time with family and friends to enjoying our favourite hobbies and pastimes, many of the routines that give our lives a sense of structure and purpose are unavailable to us. These changes can be hard to accept and may cause a profound sense of loss.

Loss of mental health support: For people with mental health challenges, including substance use problems, the anxiety caused by COVID-19 can be an extra stressor. Despite this, during the pandemic some people may no longer have the same access to professional support as they did before. Those who were seeing a therapist in person may have to adjust to getting care through a virtual platform. Others may not be able to access their previous care at all.

Uncertainty about when it will end: In many of these situations, uncertainty about how and when the situation will be resolved may complicate the grieving process. These complications make the loss harder to work through than it otherwise would be.

Stigma and Prejudice

The Rise of Stigma

How do we combat the rise in discrimination that the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked?

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a rise in stigma and prejudice against people who have the virus, people from countries where the virus originated or considered hot zones, people who have traveled recently, people who have come in contact with someone who has the virus. Health care workers may also be stigmatized as people assume they must have the virus. It is essential to stay informed to combat this discrimination while treating others with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Stigma is a negative stereotype or negative association about people with an illness. Prejudice is a negative stereotype about a group, such as racism. The current COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an increase in stigma and discrimination against people who have the virus. Discrimination is often targeted towards

  • People from countries where the virus originated or are considered hot zones.
  • Individuals who have traveled recently.
  • Anyone who may have come into contact with someone who has the virus.

Stigma often arises because of fear or uncertainty about something we don't fully understand. Because COVID-19 is new and there are still many unknowns, people are understandably scared and anxious. The large volume of information flowing through social media, news media, and other digital channels can create misconceptions about the disease that may further exaggerate the anxiety.  

The discrimination and racism that results from stigma can appear in various ways, such as:

  • Referring to COVID-19 as the "foreign virus," or Asian or Chinese flu.
  • Blaming a person or group of people who may have the virus for "being careless and spreading the illness."
  • We avoid places associated with myths about the virus, such as specific nationalities of restaurants and local stores.
  • Verbal or physical attacks on specific ethnic groups.
  • Different treatment of stigmatized people in health care, schools, and workplaces.

The Impact of Stigma

Stigma affects the people who are targeted, but it can also have a broader impact. 

  • Stigma can make people feel guilty or bad about themselves if they have the virus. 
  • It can lead people to become isolated to avoid discrimination.
  • People may be less likely to get tested or seek treatment for the virus if they fear they will face discrimination. 
  • People who have COVID-19, or think they may have come into contact with someone infected, might avoid a quarantine to hide the fact they are sick. 
  • Stigma and discrimination can also increase anxiety, as the person has to worry about managing the bias.  

How Can You Reduce Stigma? 

You might be feeling anxious or scared, and it may be comforting to find someone to blame. However, this is a time to focus on facts and evidence, not speculation, rumor, or stereotypes.

Be careful of the language you use to describe the virus or someone who has the virus. Avoid using traumatizing language by referring to COVID in terms of its speculated origin. The pandemic is a global issue, not a regional issue.

Stay informed with facts from credible sources. There are many posts on social media about the virus, the origin, and its spreading. Many of these are just stories, not facts. Inform yourself from "trusted" sources of information sources such as the Public Health Agency of Canada or the CDC for information and facts about the virus. 

  • Respect people's privacy. There is no need to tell others if you are aware of someone that's infected. Instead, remind others always to use preventative measures.
  • Focus on positives, such as the steps taken to contain the virus and the preventative measures people can take to keep safe.
  • Support someone who is experiencing stigma or discrimination because of COVID-19. Speak out against stigmatizing behaviors. 
  • Raise awareness about COVID-19 by sharing messages based on facts. 
  • Correct any misconceptions that people believe or have spread.

If you have been affected by stigma associated with COVID-19: 

  • Reach out to someone you trust, and talk about how you are feeling.
  • Remember that you did not do anything wrong. Anyone who comes in contact with this virus can get sick. 
  • Avoid reading social media discussions or blogs where people are posting stigmatizing language. 
  • Don't blame yourself because you have the virus. 

Quarantines and Isolation

While physical distancing helps slow the spread of COVID-19, it is no secret that the effects of isolation can negatively impact our mental health.

Now more than ever, it is essential for all Canadians to emotionally support each other while abiding by the distancing measures recommended by government health officials. 

Quarantine (separating well people exposed to the virus to see if they become ill) and self-isolation (divorcing people who have symptoms so that they can't infect others, including close family members) is needed to prevent the spread of a virus in a community. 

Public Health Ontario's guide to self-isolation advises on how to proceed if you are in this situation. 

Dealing with Isolation

People placed in quarantine or self-isolation may experience a wide range of feelings, including fear, anger, sadness, irritability, guilt, or confusion.

They may find it hard to sleep. Some people might feel relieved. Humans are social creatures and need a connection to others to thrive, which can make isolation challenging. 

The following suggestions may help you through this challenging time:

  • Keep busy with hobbies, interests, exercise, positively motivating experiences.
  • Maintain social interactions through digital and virtual challenge such as social media, messaging, video conferencing.
  • Engage in self-care.
  • Plan and prepare ahead for the possibility of self-isolation with food, supplies, boardgames, comfort food.
  • Supporting a loved one who will shift your focus and pass the time by being there for others.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the spread of COVID-19 is between those who have close contact, so it is critical to creating distance between the person at risk and others in the household. Unfortunately, this can worsen feelings of loneliness or abandonment, especially for someone who has a pre-existing mental illness or developmental problem. 

Supporting Your Loved Ones

Here is how you can support your loved ones:

  • Keep lines of communication open and talk regularly through video chat, phone calls, messaging apps, or text messages.
  • Be a good listener. 
  • With permission, provide only factual information without getting into an argument. 
  • Ask how they feel about or understand the information you shared.  
  • Ask about their general health, the food they might need, tasks they need help with, and other ways you might assist them. 
  • Help them stay distracted with work, hobbies, music, movies, and other activities.
  • Help them structure the day and encourage them to limit the amount of news they consume.
  • If they have a pre-existing mental illness, make sure they have access to their medications and that their condition is not getting worse. 
  • Connect them to their health care provider or any reliable and validated online support services.
  • If you or your loved one are concerned about new symptoms, please follow your local health authority's guidance for accessing care.
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