It has been 109 days since I last met with my friends. Now stuck at home, we had left our schools and workplaces behind to do our part in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV2. The vast majority of Canada, and the rest of the world, has been in a similar situation. With self-isolation, work-from-home orders, closed schools, and closed borders, our homes have become the centre of our lives.
We have been asked to change how we live our lives in almost every way, from how we buy our groceries to how we participate in meetings. Fortunately, people have responded with resilience and remarkable determination to do their part in stopping the spread of the highly infectious COVID-19 disease. We worked together, came up with new ideas, adjusted to new education platforms, and even learned to bake bread! By following public health guidelines, we have slowly but steadily flattened the curve. Models predict that these actions have saved thousands of lives.
However, this transition has not been easy. One of the major concerns being raised over the course of the pandemic is the toll that isolation has taken on people’s mental health. The stress of being isolated from family and friends while learning to study and work from home is the new unpleasant reality with which almost everyone has been confronted. Nevertheless, in many ways, this has been the ideal scenario. With over three million Canadians out of work and the growing possibility of an economic recession, the anxiety caused by job uncertainty may be with us longer than the virus itself.
Hospitals and mental health support programs have raised serious concerns over the increase in depression, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic, with worries that there are insufficient resources to help those suffering. The evidence of people struggling to cope with isolation and uncertainty is already becoming apparent; April 2020 had the highest recorded number of fatal opioid-related overdoses in Toronto since September 2017. In Manitoba there have been more opioid-related overdoses during the pandemic than COVID-19-related deaths. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) reported a 23% increase in alcohol, cannabis, and tobacco consumption as a coping mechanism due to the anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same poll, 69% of respondents admitted to having anxiety over personal finances, and 79% were afraid of what the future would look like after the pandemic. These alarming statistics reflect an urgent need for resources and policies to be put in place to prevent our society from falling into a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, many of the healthy coping techniques, such as group meetings, therapy sessions, and addiction services that address mental health issues, require in-person meetings, which are not currently available. Fortunately, some of these services have transitioned online through various social media or communication platforms. However, there are several obstacles to accessing these services. For example, not everyone has access to online platforms, some therapists do not practice online, and the newly unemployed can no longer afford to pay for treatment or support for their job loss. In light of these realities, it is more important than ever that the government work closely with mental health providers and increase funding for support programs to ensure that everyone who needs these services has access to them.
In these turbulent times, many people including graduate students are susceptible to these mental health issues. Thus, it is important for all of us to adjust our lifestyles to take better care of our mental health. Even if you aren’t using professional mental health services, it is crucial that everyone takes steps to alleviate some of the pandemic-induced chronic stress, which can easily turn into anxiety. As we know, chronic stress can lead to difficulty sleeping, body aches, indigestion, and exacerbation of heart problems. One of the ways in which you can take care of your mental health right at home is to exercise daily. Exercise, whether through walks, yoga, or bike rides, produces endorphins which can reduce tension and pain as well as make you feel happier by stimulating dopamine release. Another way to manage your stress levels is just to focus and plan things out one step at a time, which prevents you from becoming overwhelmed by the long-term uncertainty of the pandemic. Practicing mindfulness can help you to focus and engage in present experiences without becoming overwhelmed and anxious. And finally, it is important, now more than ever, to keep in close contact with your friends and family. All the different social media platforms that are accessible to us have made it easier than ever to reach out and get connected. Try to talk about things other than school and work. Recall good times, connect over your favourite new shows, share some of those bread recipes, or talk about a new hobby you took up. Feeling close to others by talking to them will remind you that you are not alone in this pandemic. That being said, also remember to take some time for yourself and reflect on how you are feeling. Try not to be too hard on yourself if things don’t work out exactly as you hoped or if you need to take some extra time to complete your work.
We have all had to adjust to a new lifestyle which has taken a toll on our mental health. But even now, as businesses and workplaces slowly start to reopen, we will be faced with a whole new set of challenges to prevent a new wave of infections. Thus, it is paramount that as we enter this transitional period, we prioritize not only our physical health and protection, but also our mental health to prevent another more silent and deadly pandemic.
For our fellow graduate students, here is a list of mental health support services, both on- and off-campus:
*Call 911 in an emergency*
Student-run support groups, workshops, mindfulness classes: https://studentlife.utoronto.ca/department/health-wellness/
GLSE Student Health and Wellness: https://www.glse.utoronto.ca/student-health-and-wellness
UTGSU GradMinds: https://www.gradminds.ca/
Mental Health Support Services:
Canadian Crisis Hotline: 1 (888) 353-2273
Crisis Services Canada: 1 (833) 456-4566
Toronto Distress Centres: (416) 408-4357
Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 416 863-0511
Community Crisis Response Service, Distress Centre (York Region): Toll Free: 1 (855) 310-COPE (2673)
Gerstein Centre Crisis Line: (416) 929-5200
Kids Help Phone: 1 (800) 668-6868
Good2Talk (for students 17-25):1 (866) 925-5454
Mental Health Helpline: 1 (866) 531-2600
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH): https://www.camh.ca/
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA): https://cmha.ca/news/covid-19-and-mental-health
Big White Wall Canada (peer support): https://www.bigwhitewall.com/?lang=en-ca&from=ca%2F
Better Help (to find a counselor): https://www.betterhelp.com/
Mental Health First Aid Canada: https://www.mhfa.ca/en/general-resources
Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport: https://www.ccmhs-ccsms.ca/mental-health-resources-1