A survey of Canadians aged 15 years and older done during the first wave of COVID-19 found that just over half, or 54%, reported their mental health as “excellent or very good”. Younger individuals and women were less likely to report better than worse mental health. Many factors contributed to the stress reported by respondents: concerns about health, about family members, and about the imposed confinement topped the list, but authors noted that mental health was worse in respondents who also faced financial insecurity as a result of the pandemic.
Loss of income, uncertainty, fear, loss of social connection, confinement – all of these aspects of the pandemic take their toll on us. The Ontario Parent Survey found that one out of three respondents reported moderate to high anxiety. Consumption of alcohol and cannabis had increased. Forty percent reported deterioration of mood or behaviour in their children and almost half revealed a high level of conflict with their partner or spouse. Although not a representative sample, 30% of parents were seeking assistance with their mood and stress levels.
And of course, being a parent is not the only hat many of us wear. Many are also employees, experiencing stress and anxiety related to perceptions of risk and safety in our workplaces. Surveys done this spring found that workers who felt unprotected, with inadequate personal protective equipment or infection prevention controls, experienced worse mental health than those who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Conversely, when workers felt fully protected at their worksites, they reported similar or even slightly better mental health compared to people who worked from home. Just as keeping kids in schools has social and mental health benefits, so does staying connected to one’s workplace, as long as it is perceived as safe.
Federal and provincial levels of government must ensure that essentials like housing, income, access to paid sick time or caregiving time are addressed as the foundation for mental well-being. For those needing financial help, there are links to income support programs on the Government of Canada website. Ensuring that people who do get sick can access testing and care quickly and without the added stress of stigma is also fundamental. Responding to unintended consequences, like worsening food insecurity and the loneliness of physical distancing can start with government action and include friends, family and community volunteers to fill in any gaps. Sometimes it is the smallest gestures of kindness and caring that can mean the most.
Ten months into this pandemic, winter weather and shorter days make getting outdoors more of a challenge but this year, more than ever, daily physical activity outdoors may be just what the doctor ordered. A daily dose of nature, of fresh outdoor air, shared at a safe distance with others, or perhaps all on your own as a break from a busy household or workplace, may be the best antidote to life in a pandemic. Peterborough is blessed with lots of beautiful spaces to decompress and recharge. Consistent practice, with the right apparel and footwear to guard against inclement weather and icy walkways, will help keep adults and children alike more resilient. For some, it may mean rescheduling our other responsibilities to build in time to be outdoors, but let’s all agree it’s a worthy investment of both time and energy at a time when our choices have radically diminished.
If you need someone to talk to about mental health concerns, you can start with your Family Doctor or Nurse Practitioner, or the Four County Crisis Line (24 hours a day/7 days a week) at 705-745-6484 or toll-free at 1-866-996-0991. For those with internet access, the Government of Canada has recently funded a website called Wellness Together Canada. By setting up a confidential account, the site allows you to create your own mental wellness program and includes links to mental health and substance use supports, resources, and counselling with a mental health professional.
It’s important to focus on the positive aspects of your life and the things you can control. Let’s all promise to be kind and compassionate to ourselves and others and not only will we get through these next few months, we’ll feel stronger and better for it.
By Dr. Rosana Salvaterra, Medical Officer of Health, Peterborough Public Health