COVID-19: Protecting mental health during crisis

We need to take care of ourselves especially now and a big part of being healthy means taking care of our mental health. Stress is a major factor in poor health. And for those who struggle with mental illness, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, these times are especially difficult.

Ottawa (20 March 2020) — This is a very stressful time for all of us. So many changes are happening at once. The worry that accompanies uprooting your routines, being laid off, wondering how rent or the mortgage will get paid. Photos of the empty store shelves invite frustration and anxiety. Sometimes we even pick up on the collective stress in our communities, with our friends and families.

We’re being told we need to practice social distancing. But really what it means is we need to put physical distance between each other. It’s times like these that we need our community more than ever. Social distancing does not mean emotional distancing. People still need to connect with each other to talk about their worries and fears, brainstorm ideas to entertain themselves and their families while in isolation or celebrate the special moments that will still occur.

While all of this is going on, we need to take care of ourselves and a big part of being healthy means taking care of our mental health. Stress is a major factor in poor health. And for those who struggle with mental illness, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, these times are especially difficult.

Help to vulnerable communities

The federal government has announced an $82 billion package to help Canadians get through this outbreak. Included in the economic and wage protection measures, it has committed funding to increase services to specific communities.

  • Increased funding would go to women’s shelters so that women can access services and not be forced to self-isolate in unsafe environments.
  • Doubling of the funding to the Reaching Home program which provides funding to communities to support homeless.
  • Boosting (temporarily) Canada Child Benefit
  • Supplement GST credit to offset consumer tax for low-income Canadians that will average about $400 for singles and $600 for couples. Similarly, the government is proposing to provide, on average, about $550 in additional May payments. Benefits are tied to income through an individual’s or family’s annual tax return.
  • Increased funding for Indigenous communities

These initiatives will be helpful to many, but there are more ways we can do to help strengthen and support the well-being of everyone around us.

Those already experiencing mental health challenge

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) represents many workers in high-stress, high-risk occupations. In our recently released paper, Mental Injury Among Justice Workers, we examine how exposure to violence and traumatic events at work can contribute to clinically significant mental health disorders. Because justice workers are expected to deal with dangerous working conditions, they are unable to refuse work that is unsafe for themselves or their coworkers. This has often excluded them from receiving benefits from injuries that occur due to their work.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a major concern, not only for justice workers, but for others who work in these high-risk occupations – firefighers, police officers, health care workers, call centre dispatchers, paramedics, or public safety personnel, among a few. But there are also many people we live and work with who experience mental health challenges on a daily basis. A crisis like the one we’re experiencing may affect these people, or others who have PTSD, depression, addictions or other mental health disorders significantly more. We need to ensure the community around them will not let them fall through the cracks. 

Be alert to changes

It is not uncommon for people to feel more stress during times of uncertainty and upheaval. This stress can show itself in many ways. Here are a few to be aware of:

  • Worry about your or your loved ones’ health
  • Change in sleep or eating patterns
  • Change in the quality of sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health issues
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

Things you can do to support well-being

  • Check in with how you and your family are feeling
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals
  • Take a break from the news and social media
  • Enjoy the fresh air
  • Find ways to relax: Exercise, stretch, take deep breaths, meditate, take a bath
  • Help a neighbour
  • Take breaks – set boundaries for if  working from home
  • Spend time on a favourite hobby
  • Call or message a friend or family member
  • Listen to music
  • Play games with your family
  • Find that book that you’ve been meaning to read
  • Let others around you know you need more support
  • Keep up with any medical treatments

Most importantly, if you feel overwhelmed and anxious over several days and find it too difficult to carry out normal activities, please seek help. Contact your doctor or other health care provider and let them know.

Here are some national resources that may help: 

Canada is full of resilient people who take care of each other. It’s important we do more of this today and in the coming days. Together, we will get through this.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE