It may feel like a lifetime ago, but it’s only been about six weeks since many Canadians were excitedly making holiday travel plans and looking forward to celebrating in-person with loved ones — some even booking trips.
That was a different time. A time when cases of COVID-19 were decreasing amid increased vaccinations.
Then, on Nov. 26, the World Health Organization announced a new coronavirus “variant of concern.”
Omicron seemed to have caused millions of stomachs to simultaneously clench and morales to plummet. The bit of light people were just starting to make out at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel went dark again, followed closely by their moods. But there is hope, say mental health experts.
“It was just that feeling of, like, ‘Oh, I just give up,'” said Claudia Casper, an author and creative writing teacher at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
Casper, 64, who is double-vaccinated and boosted, had plans to have 22 people over to her West Vancouver home for Christmas. With news of Omicron, the party shrank to 10 fully-vaccinated guests.
‘You just want to stop desiring anything’
But when Casper’s husband woke from a Christmas Day nap feeling exhausted, everything changed. They didn’t know if it was COVID-19, but one hour before guests were to arrive, they called everyone and cancelled.
“There is a point where you just want to stop desiring anything,” Casper said. “Because it’s too difficult or defeating.”
Indeed, say mental health experts, the longer stress goes on, the more damaging it is to people’s mental health.
Last spring, Dr. Roger McIntyre described COVID-19 as a source of “daily, unpredictable, malignant stress” having a physiological impact on people’s brains. It was leaving people feeling unmotivated and defeated, wondering how they’d get through this period in time.
The good news, said the professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto, was that the brain is resilient and that once the stress was removed, it would heal.
But, nine months later, with brains still broken, McIntyre says many people’s concern has now moved from “How will I get through this?’ to ‘When is this pandemic ever going end?’
“It’s concerning,” he said, “because it speaks to, I think, an underlying fear that this is going to go on and on and on.”
It can be hard for individuals to be resilient in the face of such a vast unknown.
“It’s a range of impacts and uncertainties, but the biggest thing is you just cannot really plan,” said Regardt Ferreira, director of the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy and associate professor at Tulane University’s School of Social Work in New Orleans.
“We’re two years into this and, yeah… there’s no end in sight,” he said.
Prescribe yourself ‘hedonic activity’
So how does one stay strong?
McIntyre advises people to take control of what they can in order to maintain a sense of agency over themselves and their environment.
“You have to prescribe hedonic activity for yourself,” he said. “You have to prescribe cognitive activity for yourself. You have to prescribe physical activity for yourself.”
And it also comes back to the basics: get enough sleep, get enough physical activity. And, McIntyre said, it’s important to exercise portion-control when it comes to both eating and drinking alcohol.
“The greater you rate your level of self-control,” he said, “the less you report the level of stress and anxiety in your life.
Ferreira, who has studied the impact of both natural and technological disasters on people’s resilience, said there’s evidence that once individuals experience a disaster — be it a flood or fire, nuclear meltdown or oil spill — they often come out the other end better equipped to deal with disaster again.
“The more disaster you experience, the more prepared you do become,” he said. “That then leads to resilience, as well, in the long run because you sort of have an idea what to expect.”
He was also part of a study that looked at predictors of resilience in the face of the pandemic.
In this current major wave of COVID-19, Canadians have a lot of gathered experience, Ferreira said. “So we sort of have an idea what to expect and what measures to take, and that does help with increasing our resilience.”
There is comfort and strength to be gained, he said, in maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask, and sanitizing our hands. “It sounds simplistic, but it does seem to be what works,” he said.
‘More isolated … more anxiety’
Still, McIntyre noted, humans do not have infinite resiliency.
“There is a point of no return for some people and that sets in motion, you know, problems like depression that they end up experiencing long after the stressor is gone.”
Already, Kids Help Phone said it has seen a 127 per cent increase in interactions related to COVID-19 topics since November 2021 — just before the emergence of Omicron. Subjects of the calls and texts touched on everything from cancelled holiday plans and missing friends and family to worrying about falling behind in school.
There was also a 209 per cent increase in texts about suicide and almost as high an increase in conversations about depression.
All of it together, said Alisa Simon, Executive Vice President, Chief Youth & Innovation Officer at Kids Help Phone, suggests young people are “feeling more isolated, feeling more anxiety, feeling sadder, feeling a sense of loss.”
No pressure to ‘bounce back’
Casper — whose husband ended up testing negative for COVID-19 — said she would have described herself as “resilient” before the pandemic, and is confident she’ll be okay.
“I’ll bounce back, but I think I’ll be different. I’m actually kind of interested to see,” she said.
Ferreira says for some people, it will be important not to feel pressure to bounce back to the way they were.
“Resilience is really your ability to withstand adversity and what lessons do you take from your experience in the future to withstand or grow,” he said.
Society favours resilience, but Ferreira said imposing the same expectations across the board can be detrimental.
“Not everyone has got the means because they don’t have access to resources to make them resilient,” he said.
What both Ferreira and McIntyre come back to, though, time and again, is the benefit of simple human connection.
“Something as little as just checking in with someone if you’re sensing something is off,” he said, “and again, you know, be aware of what resources are available – whether it’s an online discussion forum or if there is an online group they can attend.”
“We are people of resiliency,” said McIntyre. “The more support you have from your community, your family and the more just innate intrinsic resources you have, the more likely you’re going to adapt and you’re going to be resilient.”
If you need help, or just someone to talk to, here are some resources:
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868.
- Wellness Together Canada: Offers support to kids, adults, frontline workers, and Indigenous peoples
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566, and in French at 1-866-APPELLE 1-866-277-3553
- Hope for Wellness line for Indigenous peoples: 1-855-242-3310. You can also connect online.
- Crisis Services Canada: 1 (833) 456-4566 (24/7) or by text to 45645 (4 p.m.-12 a.m. ET)