On a routine trip to the store to pick up some medication for her mother, Michaela Vance stumbled across something that would end up helping her cope during the long months of COVID-19 lockdown.
It's called a Squishmallow, a collectible plush toy, referred to simply as "squish" by collectors.
Vance, of Fredericton, said she was "entranced" by the plushie, and wrestled with herself over whether she should buy it. She decided to leave it behind only to circle back halfway down the road to buy it.
Vance started collecting Squishmallows in 2020, and said it quickly became a "hyper-fixation." At one point, she owned about 200 squish.
"You get this, like, emotional attachment with their cute little faces," she said, comparing the craze to the Beanie Babies trend from the '90s.
"When people bought [Beanie Babies] they thought, 'Oh, I'm sitting on my inheritance, or my children are going to be millionaires because of this,'" Vance said. "There are people in the Squishmallow community that certainly do the same thing."
Vance has created a Facebook page called Fredericton Squish Besties!!, where Squishmallow collectors bond over smiling, brightly coloured stuffies that have brought comfort and fostered a sense of community after a long period of isolation.
The group's mandate is to provide a space for members to share information on finding the latest squish and to plan squish meet-ups for trading and hanging out.
The pandemic was rough, said Vance, on her mental well-being. She has autism spectrum disorder, which makes her neurodivergent. She said as a result, her nervous system is more easily stimulated than the average person, causing her to have sensory processing issues.
"[Squishmallows] are a sensory dream," Vance said. "They're so ridiculously soft and like little marshmallows, so they're very hard to resist."
Mental health support
A February 2022 study by Statistics Canada looked at self-rated mental health and community belonging among adults during the second and third waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study reported high community belonging in Canada was at 57.3 per cent in winter/spring 2021, down from 63.7 per cent in fall 2020.
In the Atlantic provinces, the percentage of high community belonging dropped to 66.9 per cent during that period from 70.4 per cent.
According to Raquel Hoersting, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island, humans crave the feeling of security and belonging from a young age. She said Squishmallow communities allow collectors to bond with people with similar interests, which helps boost their self-esteem.
"Groups have an important function in our lives, which is to create this sense of, 'Where do I belong within this world?' and also to connect us with other people," said Hoersting. "From a developmental perspective, we can see these type of toys as objects that offer a sensorial experience to individuals."
Stigma around adults collecting
Hailey Paul of Fredericton, who is 20 years old, said some adults are hesitant to share the fact that they're collecting squish.
That's why the squish collecting community in Fredericton is smaller than other places in Canada, she said, blaming the stigma around adults collecting toys.
There are currently around three dozen members in the Fredericton group, while the Nova Scotia Squishmallows Facebook group has more than 800.
"Collecting doesn't have an age, especially when it comes to Squishmallows. They're an ageless thing to enjoy," said Paul.
"Anybody, any age, any gender can enjoy Squishmallows."
Paul has at least 200 in her collection, which are displayed in her bedroom on shelves, in a stuffed-animal hammock, and on her bed.
Chase for the exclusive squish
Thanks to social media, Squishmallows have exploded in popularity since the start of the pandemic. There are squish-collecting communities on platforms such as Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and Discord. Under the hashtag #squishtok on TikTok, there are about 1.3 billion views.
Paul is a member of Squishmallow collecting communities on all social platforms. She often uses the platforms to trade and buy exclusive characters, one time paying up to $100 to buy an exclusive Chuck E. Cheese squish from a reseller in the U.S. because it wasn't available in Canada at the time.
Paul says she shakes in excitement when she's able to get her hands on exclusive one.
"It's like finding gold," she said. "When you find it in a store, or when you get it in your hands in the mail, it's surreal."