Listlessness. Languishing. Apathy. Anxiety. Depression. Despondency. Do any of these resonate with you? If so, you are not alone. In fact, mental health professionals are noticing a significant change in their patients in the indefinite uncertainty of the pandemic.
“We are really seeing a shift in how people are feeling about the pandemic, especially in the last month,” says Leanne Shannon, registered social worker with a clinical specialization and founder of Re-STORY-ing Family Services. “The impact of indefinite uncertainty is being shown even more the longer that this goes on.”
For 14 months, we have been trying to figure out how to live in this Covid-19 rollercoaster of restrictions, rules, and reclusion with no end in sight. This has not been without consequences, which is being evidenced in clinical practices.
“I’ve never been more busy in my practice and it is definitely having an impact with colleagues in similar fields of work,” Shannon explains. “What we’re hearing is high demand, lots of resources stretched, and systems struggling to keep up with what people are needing right now in this really hard time.”
It’s not surprising that more people are seeking out professional help for their mental health the longer the pandemic goes on, and as Shannon describes, our brains were not meant to be in this state of uncertainty and crisis for such a prolonged period of time.
“People’s nervous systems aren’t designed to operate at this level of critical response for 14 months,” she says. “Our brains are designed to handle crises in small bits, and then our nervous systems work hard towards recovery. I think what’s really so hard for us in this place, is that we’re not able to hit that place of recovery because this crisis continues to unfold.”
Grief During a Pandemic
Another complicating factor is there is such a range in how people are being impacted. From individuals facing unemployment and financial concerns, to health concerns, illness and death, and while we often associate grief and grieving with death, we are all experiencing grief in many forms as a result of Covid19.
“I would say we’re seeing compounding grief, ambiguous grief and complex grief,” says Shannon. “Grief isn’t just about people dying, and it isn’t a comparative analysis or a competition. I’m talking to a lot of people about things like lost hopes and lost dreams. People need to know that what they’re feeling is absolutely valid and that it does qualify as grief, and there are going to be impacts in the here and now and also going forward post-crisis.”
That isn’t to diminish the real and very difficult reality that people who have, and are, experiencing grief resulting from the death of a loved one. In this season, there are new challenges that come with death and dying.
“Families who have lost family members are in a really hard place because what we typically do to work through some of those hard places aren’t available to us right now,” Shannon explains. “For example, a funeral or a service of remembrance; we aren’t able to have those important rituals to mark these really significant events. For safety reasons, the things we would typically see during an illness or loss are not available to us, so that ‘saying goodbye’ process gets interrupted. I think from the stage of illness right through to death we’re missing some of those key pieces that help our beautiful brains try to make sense of such a difficult situation.”
Since so much of pandemic life is new, we are paving new paths as we go, but Shannon has identified some alternative ways of dealing with grief that have proven to be helpful so far.
“I think some of the coaching for someone who is grieving would be to not be left alone and that connection is so important,” she says. “On a practical level, things like journaling or writing a letter to the person they’ve lost that they may not have been able to actually articulate in person because of those covid restrictions. Another practical thought might be creating a new ritual, so if we can’t gather in a church or a funeral home to have that service, how might we do that in a different way virtually or otherwise? I’m a huge fan of candles and using them as a way of memorializing and having a physical representation of that loss.”
If you are trying to support someone who has lost a loved one, the main thing to keep in mind is to help the person know they are loved and making an effort to stay connected.
“We need to get creative around how we might be able to connect, either through technology, hand-written notes or something dropped on a doorstep,” says Shannon. “I think for people trying to support those folks, get creative and think outside the box for ways we can help people feel seen in that loss. Such an important part of grief is the process of being witnessed.”
Families and the Pandemic
Another group that has Shannon especially concerned is children and families, as the pandemic has hit many families hard with parents navigating online schooling while trying to work from home, as well as reduced support systems due to physical distancing restrictions.
According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, almost four in ten women with children report moderate to severe anxiety symptoms during this pandemic. In addition, 37 percent of females and 24 percent of males living with young children report moderate to severe anxiety.
“I hear parents losing confidence in their ability to be good parents for their kids and we want to come alongside them and help them to remember that they are their kids best bet, they are the experts on their family and boosting that confidence can really have an important impact right now,” Shannon says. “It’s ever-evolving and changing. We need to be prepared for the fact that today might feel like a seven and tomorrow may feel like a two, and it’s also ok to not be ok.”
The indefinite uncertainty, many separations they are experiencing, disconnection and chaos are having a huge impact on the developing brains of adolescents, and as such this is a group that Shannon is particularly concerned about.
“Certainly, in my practice with adolescents and young adults, it’s the demographic I’m most concerned about from a mental health perspective,” she says. “As parents, caregivers, and loving adults, we want to go really hard on helping them to feel what they’re feeling. We want them to know we are their safety net and that we can help prop them up, and also help them to know that we have confidence in their ability to get through this hard time.”
There is Hope
While it may seem like any attempt at lifting ourselves out of a state of pandemic burnout is futile, there are some antidotes that can help fuel us in healthier ways. Self-compassion, infusing fun into activities, creating connection, and finding forms of creative expression can all help people get through this time of uncertainty, and this goes for everyone from parents and children to frontline workers.
“We need to normalize self-compassion and recognize what works for you in those self- compassionate ways,” says Shannon. “We know ourselves best in what is going to continue to sustain and fuel us. So how do we practice a little bit of acceptance, expect a little bit less, and practice a little bit more self-compassion than we normally would do.”
Some other suggestions Shannon has are to try to focus on something forward facing, like a project or a goal, doing games nights or family fun days, and incorporating activities to care for your mind, body and soul.
“What I think is happening is this is very serious. We’re living in a global pandemic. We’re working in our homes, we’re not getting out, kids are learning online and spending so much time in front of those screens and we’re forgetting how to play,” she explains. “Something as simple as a game of cards, or balloon volleyball to interrupt the seriousness of all of this, which does beautiful things for our kids’ brain chemistry and does a lot of things for ours as adults. The antidote to anxiety, to alarm, to disconnection we’re feeling is all about connection, and finding new ways to do that in these limited, restricted ways.”
Shannon is practicing what she preaches, she has seen firsthand how prioritizing connection and play can boost everyone’s moods.
“My family decided after a couple of really down weeks that we were going to create Friday night family fun night and we took turns picking themes. There was a dress up component, played games, the kids even dressed up as each other,” she laughs. “A brain at play and engaged in playful activity has a hard time being alarmed and anxious.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, In Alberta visit https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/amh/page16759.aspx or in BC visit https://cmha.bc.ca/mental-health/find-help/or phone Telecare BC at 1-888-852-9099 or contact your mental health professional.