Snow shoveling, frosty commutes, and long dark days. They’re things Canadians might not want to think about just yet.
It’s only September, of course. So there’s still time to sit on a patio and in a park, bike and hike trails, and enjoy a sunset on a lake — all things doable during a pandemic in the summer.
But winter is coming and, according to experts, so too is the accompanying seasonal woes. And this time, it will be “amplified” by the confines of the coronavirus, according to Roger McIntyre, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto.
“There’s a real concern about the amplification of loneliness,” McIntyre told Global News.
“An epidemic of loneliness long preceded this pandemic. And just by the nature of winter, people are less likely to come in contact with others. It’s a realistic concern.”
Since March, Canadians have been told to stay apart to stop the spread of the virus. The ability to be outdoors has provided safer alternatives to exercise, recreation, commuting and dining, among other things.
In the winter, those options will dwindle. Experts have warned the risk of transmission also increases indoors.
“I think we’re looking at a layering effect on mental health,” McIntyre said.
“The public health crisis alone is enough to cause post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and even suicide. Add on the tremendous economic impact on people and the malignant uncertainty of the pandemic with winter — I think you have a combustible mix.”
Mental health and COVID-19
The mental health of many Canadians has undoubtedly been impacted by COVID-19, as experts have warned it would.
Data is starting to make those fears a clearer reality.
A survey done in conjunction with the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that a whopping 84 per cent of those surveyed felt their mental health had worsened since the onset of the pandemic. Similarly, an Ipsos survey done for Addictions and Mental Health Ontario found 45 per cent of Ontarians reported their mental health had suffered during the pandemic, with 67 per cent saying they expect those effects to be “serious and lasting.”
“Unfortunately the unintended consequence of governments shutting down entire economies to deal with this emergency is a mental health crisis,” McIntyre. said.
In some ways, the coronavirus situation in Canada has improved since the spring. Cases across most provinces gradually fell through May and June, paving a safe path for policymakers to begin a phased reopening of their economies.
“There’s always this inclination to hibernate in the winter. But during COVID-19, there might be even more of a need for people to kind of mentally push themselves to bundle up and go out,” said Theone Paterson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
“But that’s not always possible for everybody. When it’s icy, some people with mobility issues or frailty would have difficulty doing things like that.”
That’s where the fears of “amplified loneliness” come in, according to McIntyre.
“Loneliness has been linked to a series of adverse health outcomes, not just obesity and heart disease, but depression and suicide,” he said.
And it’s not just adults feeling it. McIntyre pointed to a recently released UNICEF report that showed Canada placed 31st of 38 countries on children’s mental well-being.
“That report preceded the pandemic,” he said. “It tells a very dour story that children are lonely too, and have very low levels of life satisfaction in this country.”
How to cope
For McIntyre, “history is the lesson.”
“In other words, what have you learned in the last six months?”
The coping strategies and routines you adopted back in March might need to be revived, Paterson said.
“Some people might be better with coming up with those strategies than others,” she said. “But there are plenty of things that don’t take you outside that you can do — so things like using an app to do indoor exercises, since physical activity is great for your mood.”
Both Paterson and McIntyre agree that it’s just as important in the winter portion of the pandemic to stay connected with people. However, there is a fine line.
While there’s no question technology can help quell loneliness while we stay physically distant, “these devices can be hazardous for some people,” said McIntyre.
“There are extremes. People who spend a lot of time on social media do report more negative health outcomes,” he said. “There’s ‘portion control’ that can be applied here.”
The endless social media scrolling might be fueled by feelings of boredom, said James Danckert, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Waterloo. Danckert studies boredom and has recently been analyzing it under a COVID-19 lens.
Boredom might be temporary for some people, he said, but for those who have “boredom proneness” it can lead to mental health effects like increased anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol use.
“There isn’t a positive relationship with boredom proneness, everything is bad,” he said.
“Boredom prone people tend to go to their smartphones and social media more and have an unhealthy relationship, that looks, in its form, like an addiction.”
Social media and things like drugs and alcohol are a “pacifier” to boredom, he said.
But Danckert believes it’s possible to use boredom to your advantage, especially in times like COVID-19 in the winter, where options for activities and safe socializing are more limited.
“In a lockdown situation, it’s hard to figure out the thing you want to do that’s purposeful and meaningful to you, but that’s the solution,” he said.
“It’s a good chance to reflect on what matters to you. It doesn’t need to be grand terms, like ‘How do I cure cancer?’ It should be something that feels good at that moment, like picking up a guitar or deciding to make banana bread. Then you’re actively choosing rather than passively picking up your phone — it’s better for you in the long run.”
All the experts agree that preparation will be helpful.
Winter is inevitable, so any preemptive things a person can do to improve their at-home life in advance is recommended, whether that be buying more gym equipment or stocking up on baking supplies.
“It comes down to enhancing your resiliency,” McIntyre said.
“It’s all the basics — sleep, exercise, eating properly, moderating your alcohol intake and facilitating a social connectedness.”