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Losing sight of the COVID-19 finish line: How more lockdowns, cases blur hope

Click to play video: 'Managing mental and physical wellbeing during COVID-19' Managing mental and physical wellbeing during COVID-19
WATCH: Managing mental and physical well-being during COVID-19 – Apr 5, 2021

After more than a year of isolation, distance and uncertainty, Canadians are maxed out.

Vaccines are getting into arms, and more are coming, but for some, that “light at the end of the tunnel” touted by politicians and public health officials has dimmed recently.

The arrival of more transmissible and dangerous variants has changed the trajectory of the pandemic in Canada, forcing provinces to impose stringent restrictions yet again.

Read more: Managing mental and physical wellbeing during 3rd wave of COVID-19

For Yiran Zhang, Ontario’s latest round of rules was a breaking point.

“I cried throughout the entire weekend,” said Zhang, 30, a research assistant and instructor in Toronto. “I could no longer persuade myself that things would get better in the future.”

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And she’s far from the only one. After Premier Doug Ford’s announcement on April 16 ushering in further closures of amenities and activities, including some outdoors, Ontarians reacted online in a wave of sadness and anger. Some people pointed out that, this time, the “rage and despair” felt more like a collective emotion than ever before.

Roger McIntyre, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto, said the collective feeling comes down to one thing: unpredictability.

“Chronic unpredictable stress,” to be exact.

“When you and I are told that the finish line is there, while we’re under chronic stress, it’s difficult but we try to accommodate it. But when you aren’t confident about where the finish line is, that, by definition, is unpredictable,” he said.

“It’s the unpredictability that’s becoming the straw breaking the camel’s back for many people.”

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In other words, there’s a juxtaposition happening that Canadians are struggling to compute. Between knowing that vaccines will lead us out of the pandemic and the ever-changing, ever-tightening rules, Canadians are dealing with information overload that is “neither coherent nor cohesive” — which is vital to mitigate that stress, he said.

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“How can we have the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re told to stay at home? That doesn’t sound like the light at the end of the tunnel,” said McIntyre.

“It only further adds to the blah, the languishing feeling, which I think is a pandemic in itself.”

Mental health

Millions of deaths, economic strife and unprecedented curbs on social interaction have had a marked effect on people’s mental health. Researchers worldwide are still studying the impacts, which many fear could linger long after the pandemic ends.

Since last year, Canadians have been told to stay apart to stop the spread of the virus, but the ability to be outdoors has generally provided safer alternatives for exercise, recreation and dining, among other things. Those options dwindled in the winter. As the second wave bore down, cold weather and renewed lockdowns forced people to stay at home. Even with summer on the horizon, those options are once again shrinking.

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Read more: A year into the pandemic, mental health workers face burnout and soaring demands

The second wave of the pandemic intensified feelings of stress and anxiety, causing alarming levels of despair and hopelessness among Canadians, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) found in December 2020. That trajectory isn’t likely to improve as the country endures the third wave, according to Michael Anhorn, the CEO of the CMHA’s Toronto branch.

“Research has shown a fairly steady decline in mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. The longer it goes on, the more our wellness suffers,” he said.

During the second wave, 40 per cent of Canadians who participated in a CMHA survey said their mental health has worsened — up from 38 per cent in the first wave. A separate report by HR company Morneau Shepell showed Canadians’ psychological health has steadily declined, hitting a negative score for a 12th consecutive month. That same report said the feeling of isolation is worse now than at any prior point in the pandemic.

Social inequities like gender, race and economic status only amplify the impacts, said Anhorn. Of the Canadians feeling the negative mental health impacts, 45 per cent are women, compared to 34 per cent of men, according to CMHA.

“We have to be extra sensitive and extra aware of that,” said Anhorn. “I think of my life, and I know my sister is feeling it more than I am.”

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Michelle Aguiar, 46, doesn’t cry as much these days but it’s not because things have gotten easier for her. She has a 16-year-old at home who’s struggled with school closures and not seeing friends, and she also cares for her young grandchildren when their parents are at work or appointments.

Her own mother has Alzheimer’s and has “deteriorated very quickly” since the pandemic began. Until recently, she had been her sole caregiver.

“There came a point when I just couldn’t do it all anymore,” she said.

“The feeling of guilt I have is overwhelming… Not being a good enough daughter, mother, grandmother and wife. I don’t cry as much these days because I think I’m just numb.”

She worries the light at the end of the tunnel is fading too. She said she’s lost confidence in the vaccine rollout program “because it changes so often.” With her husband left to keep their small business in Cambridge, Ont., alive, the future is always on her mind.

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“I try to mask a lot of how I feel because my children are suffering and look at me to give them hope,” she said.

“I try, but I have to admit, I’m lying to them most of the time. I can’t tell them when this will end or when you can get your life back and then face one more lockdown, one more announcement.”

Read more: Women-owned businesses hardest hit during coronavirus pandemic, study finds

Despite flickering hope, Canada has maintained it will meet its goal of vaccinating all willing Canadians by September. There has been brighter news in recent days — more doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine are coming, eligibility is gradually opening up to all adults in hot-spot areas in Ontario and Canada could see extra shots come from its neighbour the U.S.

But recent announcements like Ontario’s — which took away considerably safer activities like camping, tennis and golf — make people think “the goalposts keep changing,” said McIntyre.

Just Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government’s “smart, solid plan” will see Canadians and their families “through the storm to brighter days ahead.”

The ultimate goalpost is ending the pandemic. For many Canadians, it’s personal now, McIntyre said, like something as simple as having a normal summer.

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It’s like a marathon no one signed up for, said McIntyre. During that race, you’re pacing yourself, you’re compartmentalizing, you’re finding mini-achievements. When that finish line is moved, “it undermines your coping mechanism.”

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Coping strategies

Diversity of experience means some people may be more susceptible to the impact of COVID-19, said McIntyre. He suggested it’s creating a clearer division of society.

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“You have people who will do just fine, they’ll flourish. Then you’ll have this large swath of society who don’t have a mental illness, but they’re not well, they’re tired, fatigued, apathetic. For many of this group, these feelings may be time-limited once our lives get back to normal,” he said.

“But we also know that for a lot of people, this is the first step of going into a depression and that this type of experience can often be a poor tent. We don’t want to catastrophize this because not everyone does, but we also can’t trivialize it.”

For Zhang, as a new immigrant, isolation has been particularly hard. While she’s “lucky enough” to work, study and teach from home, she said the third wave and questionable leadership from the Ontario government have fuelled her sense of hopelessness.

“It’s eating me alive,” she said.

Read more: COVID-19 pandemic could be a tipping point in ending stigma around mental health care

On two occasions, Zhang called crisis lines because of intense panic attacks. She talks to a counsellor from time to time but admits she’s “pondered about my existence in very unhealthy ways” as the pandemic has dragged on.

Recent acts of hatred against Asians in Canada and the United States have only exacerbated her emotions, she said.

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“Overall, I am sad, angry, exhausted… and trying really hard to keep myself together.”

Now is a critical time to lean into coping mechanisms, the experts agree.

They might not be the same as what you did last spring, and it might not be as appetizing as it once was, but it is the only way to get “tremendous control over a very stressful event,” said McIntyre.

“But there will be people, unfortunately, who will be dealing with significant stressors, who will need to speak to a health-care provider.”

Click to play video: 'Improving our mental health during the pandemic' Improving our mental health during the pandemic
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The basics — sleep, exercise, structure — are even more important now, he said.

“It’s simple but profound. It’s telling your brain you have stress, but it’s predictable.”

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Of course, some of these things will be hindered by COVID-19 safety protocols and rules, said Anhorn.

“But instead of looking out at the horizon, bring your gaze closer,” he said.

Aguiar is trying to look ahead. She’s taken up crocheting with her oldest daughter, who is expecting a new baby this summer. The family is also awaiting a new puppy, which she hopes will bring them outdoors more.

Read more: ‘It’s gonna take time’ — Canadians battle anxiety as they face post-pandemic life

For Zhang, exercise has been a way to cope in the short term. For an hour to two hours every day, Zhang can zone out of the world outside her apartment walls and focus on herself. She also walks around her neighbourhood when the weather is nice and writes in a journal.

It helps with her stress, but the anger she has for how the Ontario government has handled this crisis permeates.

“At this point, I do not see that light at the end of the tunnel,” she said

“I think many people in this province will come out of the pandemic traumatized for a long time purely because of how useless the government has proven themselves to be.”

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The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts, Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868, and the Trans Lifeline 1-877-330-6366 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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