Mental health hit hard by COVID-19

·5 min read

Living through the ongoing challenge of the COVID-19 global health crisis has left many feeling emotionally drained and in languishing mental health.

COVID-19 has been an unprecedented experience full of uncertainty impacting people’s emotional and mental health, said Registered Psychologist with Prairie Mountain Health and University of Manitoba department of clinical health psychology assistant Prof. Dr. Anastasia Gibson.

“Despite our growth as a society and our knowledge base, there is still quite a significant stigma that is attached to mental health,” Gibson said. “Especially mental and emotional well-being.”

Oct. 3 to 9 marked Mental Illness Awareness Week and World Mental Health Day is on Oct. 10.

The adversity of living through the pandemic has highlighted the increasing need to talk about mental health.

“Maybe you’re not feeling depressed or burned out proper, but that doesn’t mean that you’re languishing. It’s still important to be able to look at where we’re at. If we’re finding that motivation is gone, that interest is gone, then we still need to be able to engage in ... meaningful activities and be able to engage in some self-compassion,” Gibson said.

In rural areas like Westman it can be a challenging conversation unpacking mental health and asking for help and support when it is needed, Gibson said. This experience of languishing mental health is further compounded because many people do not make their mental health a priority.

Gibson likened maintaining positive mental health and emotional well-being to how one would react to an emergency while on an airplane.

“When the gas masks come down it’s important to make sure you put your oxygen mask on first, and then you tend to your dependents … For us to be equipped to even help others we need to equip ourselves,” Gibson said.

Languishing mental health represents the void between depression and flourishing mental health. It has been a new emotion for many during the pandemic, representing a feeling of stagnation and emptiness.

“Last year when the pandemic hit we were overwhelmed — it was the fight or flight response,” Gibson said. “But, it was also grief. There was such a strong divide between life pre-pandemic to post-pandemic within a matter of days.”

Reaching out for help to maintain positive mental health remains important, she said, but there are small steps people can take day-to-day that can help.

Positive mental health practices can include self-compassion and being kind to one’s self, recognizing and naming emotions and feelings to find coping strategies, managing expectations and normalizing the experience of languishing mental health, and focusing on small goals.

Gibson said her office has been busier post-pandemic and she thinks education around mental well-being is fueling the increased engagement.

During the pandemic connecting with others remains imperative as many people are experiencing feelings of alienation and isolation. Gibson recommends utilizing technology and other resources to stay healthy and stave off these feelings.

“Staying connected is so critical because it’s easy to feel isolated,” Gibson said.

The upcoming Mental Health on the Prairies Virtual Conference and Community Conversation taking place on Oct. 20, 21 and 28 is hoping to help community members connect, said Rachel Herron, department of geography and environment Brandon University professor and Canada Research Chair Director, Centre for Critical Studies of Rural Mental Health.

The conference will focus on bringing together researchers, professionals working in health and social care, educators, community groups and participants with lived experience.

“We need to talk about mental health at all times,” Herron said. “We are seeing more attention paid to mental health … This meeting was born out of that desire to do more and promote conversations about mental health.”

Herron said they began planning the conference in 2019 before COVID-19. At the time, they were already seeing within Brandon, Westman and the province there were many diagnosed mental health disorders and more action was needed to better address and promote good mental health.

The symposium is designed to bring people together to learn from each other, better understand lived experiences, address the stigmas associated with mental illness and understand strategies, strengths and resources in the community along with what needs to be developed.

“Together we can brainstorm the things we need to do, as well as feature some of the things we are doing well already,” Herron said.

The symposium has several sessions and components, Herron said.

An especially interesting event is a series of rapid research presentations. The talks will feature several projects focusing on issues of rural mental health and isolation, including a special section on student mental health and another on rural health-care workers’ mental health during COVID-19.

The three-minute presentations will be followed by seven minutes of follow-up questions from attendees to generate conversations.

“There’s a lot of different sessions on different areas of research,” Herron said.

A lived experience panel will also take place highlighting the experience of different individuals who have navigated mental illness, the health care system, the challenges they faced and what has worked well for them.

The symposium includes a special free presentation featuring Jordin Tootoo appearing virtually on Oct. 20. Tootoo is a former Wheat King and the first Inuk player in history to be drafted by the NHL and will discuss with community members about the importance of creating a culture of inclusivity to promote mental health.

Herron added she hopes the conference can be a building block for future work in support of mental health in Westman to help build resiliency in the community.

“We want to start engaging in those conversations with people and use them to continue to do better work, whether it’s research or education, or something completely different within our community,” Herron said.

Tickets for the Prairies Virtual Conference and Community Conversations are available at brandonu.ca/mhp/.

For more information on health and wellness services in Brandon visit prairiemountainhealth.ca.

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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