Mental health issues – COVID-19’s hidden wave

Some of B.C.’s psychotherapists and counsellors are reporting an uptick in client requests in the last two months as prolonged COVID-19 outbreaks and the lockdown are taking a toll on people’s mental health.

“Initially people were cutting down on therapy by focusing on their primary needs. However, as time went on, anxiety about COVID started to get more prevalent, particularly for people who already have some symptoms, COVID exacerbated the issues,” says Tajinder Sangara, a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver.

Ed Ng, a psychologist whose clients are mainly immigrants and minorities, concurs. He says he’s noticed a similar pattern in his practice with a significant increase in younger clients, such as university students, recently.

“I see more and more anxiety issues now and COVID definitely contributed to that. I am finding that the root for anxiety is that people’s prior meaning for life is no longer what they can rely on, they have to reimagine how life looks like when there is a constant threat of a disease, an unreliable economy and the social distancing from family and friends,” says Ng.

Vulnerable demographics

It is common knowledge that the elderly are facing more health threats from COVID, but for those on the cusp of adulthood and careers, collateral damage from social distancing, such as vanished opportunities and dwindling social relationships, are clearly impacting young adults’ psychology in a severe way.

Tajinder Sangara. | Photo courtesy of Tajinder Sangara

Based on findings by Class of COVID Canada from SFU, a project where students submitted their personal stories during the pandemic, two-thirds (67 per cent) of respondents have felt anxious and close to half (46 per cent) have felt a deep sense of loneliness. The youth indicated in their stories that the primary causes for their anxiety were the troubling state of affairs in the world, personal finances and spending too much time either alone or among negative family dynamics.

“For young people, this is the time they are supposed to be meeting and mating. If that part is being cut out because of COVID, how are they going to develop intimate relationships?” says Isabella Jiang, a counsellor with a cross-cultural focus in her practice. “And if you habitually have no in-person contact, your ability to mingle with people is going to diminish and later it will be a huge adjustment when you are thrown back into society.”

Another group that is also significantly stressed out from COVID are parents with young children, according to both Jiang and Sangara.

“Some of the issues that are emerging from COVID are added stress and burden within a family. For many of these families, there was an increasing level of stress for parents who have to work from home but also have to homeschool their children,” says Sangara.

Jiang adds that while parents already have a lot of emotions to process during this crisis, they also have to deal with their children’s emotions. She says parents are half happy, half worried about the September school reopening as they can be relieved of some childcare stress, but at the same time they know it is difficult to ensure young children maintain social distance and not touch anything outside.

Both Jiang and Sangara mention that tensions have also increased between spouses when it comes to sharing responsibilities and dealing with stressful situations and, as a result, domestic violence has gone up.

Ng says incidences of racism against Asians have also increased since the pandemic, which has been causing more mental anguish and anxiety for those who encounter them.

Ed Ng. | Photo courtesy of Ed Ng

“80 per cent of my clients are of Asian descent. Most of these people are of middle-class background who genuinely want to integrate into this country, except now they are feeling they are being pushed back as the foreigners somehow; it brings up issues of identity all over again,” says Ng.

Ng explains that in psychology we tend to see an ‘in group’ vs ‘out group’ dynamic based on whether someone is like us or not and ethnicity can be one thing to form such a group. Despite the ideal of the Canadian mosaic, he says COVID-19 has made some people redraw the line and reveal their underlying psychological biases toward other people.

“Whenever we come to a crisis, and we are in a crisis right now, people can easily go for fight or flight. COVID has divided the world, it has divided communities and it has divided couples. If there is something triggering inside you and you don’t feel safe, you tend to let out your frustrations,” Jiang adds.

Coping mechanisms and helpful advice

Alcohol and drug use have both increased since the start of COVID according to results from a Statistics Canada survey, which puts people at risk of more problems with unhealthy addictions.

“People are looking for a sense of meaning in all of this. The substances usually don’t matter as much as the underlying emotions that people are trying to run away from or are trying to dull down, they are just using the wrong means to cope,” Ng says.

He explains that people are trying to find a way to frame how life is supposed to go when the pandemic throws everything off-kilter.

“It is causing a lot of people to reevaluate.”

Isabella Jiang. | Photo courtesy of Isabella Jiang

As a Christian who uses faith in understanding psychology, Ng says that he also sees that some people who used to see faith as utilitarian and something they do on a Sunday morning are now seeing it as something more vital.

As social isolation has made the world less filled with human touch, Ng recommends everyone stay connected with their bodies as much possible.

“Every opportunity we can feel the body again we should take the advantage, to get good food, to sleep well, to exercise properly, to pay attention to our physicality and not to treat it like a machine.”

Sangara adds that it is also important to have self-compassion around how we are feeling if we have negative emotions, to not be too judgmental or harsh and to remind ourselves that we are doing the best we can.

Jiang says that though it is good to be cautious, it is not helpful to be too extreme or worry too much either.

“You need to let your hair down sometimes, whatever circumstance we are in, we need to try to make the best out of it.”

Support resources recommended by psychologists:

BC Mental Health Support Line: 604-310-6789

The Alcohol & Drug Information and Referral Service:  1-800-663-1441