Mental health is health is an aphorism with which young Canadians have grown familiar over the past decade. The sentiment has been reiterated by high school teachers, professors, counsellors, family doctors and the media for years, particularly on the annual Bell Let’s Talk day, when telecommunications company Bell Canada donates 5 cents to mental health programs for every social media post that uses the #BellLetsTalk hashtag.
But the campaign felt cynical—even sarcastic—this year. If there was concern about a mental health crisis before the pandemic, surely today we should be more worried than ever. Mental health is sharply deteriorating around the world. Many have found themselves with precarious finances, confined to their homes, separated from loved ones, reliving the same dull, colourless day over and over again. For the past year, our governing bodies have neglected the toll the pandemic and the measures to combat it have taken on our psychological well-being. While mainstream media is eager to report terrifying stories about the virus, it has far less to say about the severe psychological problems developing behind the scenes.
Depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidal ideation are on the rise among younger adults. Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children has reported that approximately 70% of children experienced a decline in their mental health during the first lockdown. Although buzzwords like resilience are liberally thrown around, Ontario’s children have not yet recovered from the psychological toll of the first lockdown, and entered the second lockdown less resilient than before. SickKids hospital has reported an unprecedented increase in eating disorders among children. Kids Help Phone, an organization that offers 24/7 support to children, was contacted over 4 million times in 2020, more than twice as many times as the previous year.
The mental health toll is very real. But those of us who speak out about it are frequently demonized on social media and dismissed as anti-science, anti-lockdown buffoons. But, by November 2020, there had been more than 1,500 deaths from opioid overdoses in British Columbia—surpassing the number of Covid-19 fatalities. That month, the province reported an 89% increase in illicit drug toxicity deaths compared to the previous year: most of the victims were men aged 30–59. This alarming trend is not unique to Canada. The pandemic and the accompanying economic recession are associated with a 10–60% increase in “deaths of despair” (illicit drug overdoses, suicides, alcoholism) in the United States.
The gravity of Covid-19 does not escape me. But the emerging mental health crisis is also very serious. It is well established that mental and physical health are intertwined. As the World Health Organization’s first director general stated in 1954, “without mental health there can be no true physical health.” Numerous scientific studies support this claim. For example, depression is a predictor of coronary heart disease in previously healthy people. Depressed people are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack than members of the general population.
The Canadian public is constantly reassured that our leaders are following the advice of experts. But these experts seem to be ignoring human psychology and dismissing mental health as inconsequential. Platitudes such as we just have to hang in there fail to acknowledge the psychological crisis facing so many. So, after a full year of endless tragedy and heartache, what can we do to salvage our deteriorating mental health?
Establish a Routine
Our days have blurred together: it is important to recreate the distinctions between them. This means separating work, family and online socializing time. If you have the means to physically separate your work space from your living space (by using a home office, for example), you should do so.
Structure and predictability will offer a sense of control over your life in these chaotic times.
Take Care of Yourself
This means getting up every morning and changing out of your pyjamas, starting or ending the day with a shower, eating well and making careful food choices. Increased substance use might be tempting—but we should avoid developing such habits. Note when you feel the urge to turn to drugs or alcohol. Is it when you are reading the news? Try to read it less frequently. Are you just bored? Keep yourself busy by painting or doing puzzles, taking up indoor gardening or going hiking. Maintain good sleep hygiene by going to bed and waking up on a consistent schedule. Avoid screen time before bed, as blue light will disrupt your sleep cycle.
You should also exercise. Not only will it improve your physical health (by lowering your weight or cholesterol, for example), but it can improve your mood, energy and stress levels and alleviate symptoms of depression. There are countless exercise videos you can follow on YouTube. If traditional cardio workouts are not your thing, check out BODYCOMBAT. Exercise could also entail taking a leisurely 30-minute walk every day. Try to get outside to soak up the sunlight and breathe in the fresh air—it will make you feel better.
Right now, it’s difficult to imagine returning to a life of normalcy. But the day will come, and you will want to be your best self when it does.
Of course, virtual socializing is not a perfect replacement for the in-person variety. But human interaction is a fundamental part of the human experience: do not deprive yourself of it. Call your friends and family over Zoom or Skype regularly, to see how they are doing; talk about your day, even if it was uneventful. Establish a weekly online coffee hangout with your loved ones or colleagues. Join an online writing session or book club. Play online games. In September 2020, I joined a game of Among Us, alongside a group of friends and friends of friends. Now, at least one evening a week, ten or more of us get together to play some (free and easily accessible) online games and keep each other company. It provides much needed social fulfilment and brightens up some dull days. I would highly recommend giving it a try.
By this, I don’t mean stay up to date with current events. It will not do you much good to read about how countries have bungled their vaccine rollouts. Remember that the media tend to exaggerate the negativity in the world: you partake in this negativity to your detriment. Instead, focus on what you can control: this will alleviate some of the anxiety associated with uncertainty. You can still maintain a largely healthy lifestyle by following a decent diet, exercising and staying connected with friends and family. You have the power to wake up every day and do small things that can improve your mood. These might include something as mundane as making your bed and feeling the sense of accomplishment this provides. Practice fostering this sense of agency.
Many of us are struggling with lack of motivation, concentration and productivity. Some are falling into increasingly destructive substance abuse habits. Be compassionate with yourself and others. If you didn’t meet your daily goals today, break them down into smaller steps and try again tomorrow.
Be generous with your family, friends and colleagues: remember that they are also experiencing much of what you are going through. Check in on them—perhaps you can find some way to help them cope. Likewise, do not be ashamed to ask for help. Men in particular need to internalize this, as they are less likely to seek help with their mental health. If you develop a physical illness that just won’t go away, you will probably go and see a medical doctor. Have the self-compassion to treat your psychological well-being the same way. If you find yourself unable to rein in substance use or regulate your mental health, seek professional help. That’s what trained clinical psychologists are for.
The pandemic has been difficult to navigate for billions of people around the world. Officials have told us how to protect ourselves from contracting the Covid-19 virus (through hand washing, masks and social distancing) and the media has amplified this message. But we must summon up the same vigour with which we are combatting the virus and take proactive measures to preserve our mental health during these trying times. Mental health is health, after all.