But, we wanted to get more personal, local perspectives on mental health during the worst public health crisis in a century.
We spoke to two therapists in Lethbridge – one who specializes in youth counselling and one who specializes in family counselling – to see what trends they have noticed in the past year.
A perspective on addictions was also provided to LNN from Alberta Health Services (AHS).
The Pandemic on Families:
Early on in the pandemic, things were pretty much business as usual for Bonnie Lee.
She is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist at Openheart Individual Couple & Family Therapy.
As the months went on, however, she noticed an uptick in the number of couples who were seeking professional help.
“If the couple has already some existing stress or conflict, the pandemic actually exacerbates it, it makes it worse because the additional stressors that come in because of loss of income, loss of employment, and being kind of cooped up in the home with constant contact with each other.”
An increasing number of workers have been laid off for extended periods of time or have moved their office to their home.
Although a transition to working from home might seem like a great idea on paper to some, this environment has created or intensified tensions in the home for others.
Lee says it is normal and often healthy for people to have social outlets outside of the home.
Before the pandemic, they might choose to go to the bar with friends, exercise, attend events, or partake in other activities that help to relieve stress or allow them to be with others.
With many of those ventures either being restricted out outright banned during the COVID era, the pandemic has acted as a sort of “pressure cooker” where any bit of stress and anxiety build-up but are not able to be released in healthy ways.
Even if you can’t meet people in person, there are still ways this can be done.
Lee often recommends meeting virtually with friends and family. Others have started book clubs or hold religious services over Zoom.
“Any kind of stimulation is helpful. Boredom is a problem.”
For issues between couples, she says communication is key and is often the most effective means of finding solutions.
“I think sometimes, the problem is not the problem – it’s how people deal with it.”
If a couple does have issues that aren’t being resolved by simple conversations, she encourages them to seek out counselling.
It does not have to be for extended periods of time. Often, she has found that even one or two sessions can help people to find simple solutions to problems.
“What a few sessions of couple’s therapy can do is to give them ways to expand what they can talk about. A lot of couples who are in trouble have a very narrow range of communication – it tends to be complaining or criticism or a failure to show appreciation – so it could have a dampening effect on the relationship.”
Lee says couples should engage in what she calls “energy uppers” such as sharing new ideas, what has made them happy in the last day, and showing mutual appreciation every day.
“Prevention is better than cure so don’t wait till it’s too late.”
The Pandemic on Youth:
While children are more prone to immediate impacts on their mental health, the good news is, they tend to be very resilient and will be fine in the long run.
That’s according to Chelsea Bodie, a Registered Psychologist at Be Mind Body Therapy in Lethbridge. One of her specialities is youth mental health.
She has noticed more young Albertans seeking counselling over the course of the pandemic.
“I think, in the beginning, it definitely was [difficult] just because it was so unexpected and no one really knew what that looked like. Moreso, what I heard kind of in this last one around Christmas time was they knew what was coming and they knew what to anticipate, but they just didn’t like it.”
A lot of clients she has worked with have brought up disruptions to their routines such as going back-and-forth between online and in-person schooling.
Other common concerns were feelings of isolation and being unable to connect with their friends.
Although a lot of youths were likely excited at first to not have to go to school when in-person classes were shut down, the lack of social interactions with their classmates has been troubling.
This goes for sports and other extracurricular activities as well.
“There’s a lot of social groups within those communities, right? We have our friends at hockey or soccer or dance or whatever activities the child might be in, so there’s definitely [an element of] missing it and really wishing they could be part of it and missing that community.”
“Potentially, they might feel more depression-type symptoms or anxiety or again coming back to loneliness from not having those connections.”
As most families will likely understand, what goes on with the parents will ultimately affect their children. Bodie says, if the parents are dealing with their own relationship or employment issues, the stress from that might unintentionally, directly or indirectly, come out onto them.
“In some ways, I think the pandemic is almost harder on parents because they’re playing different roles and they’re having to juggle schedules and potentially working from home or having their kids being homeschooled. I think, maybe, the kids can see that in their parents, like, the parents are worn out and they’re getting tired.”
It will be reiterated here that communication is key.
One of the most important things for parents to remember, according to Bodie, is that the feelings of their children are just as important as theirs.
She recommends acknowledging to your children that you know they are feeling a certain way and that those emotions are valid.
“I think having sometimes like team meetings or family meetings or checking in on everybody can be really helpful, depending on the age of the child, but I definitely think that can be helpful.”
“Just having those kinds of moments of connection as a family too and trying to find ways to make things fun or light at home like having a board game night or having different activities you can do as a family that doesn’t feel so much like work or school-based kind of stuff.”
Whether it be just for couples or as a family, it is important to remember that everyone is in this situation together and the best solutions are the ones that benefit everyone.
The Pandemic on Addictions:
LNN attempted to conduct interviews with a few different therapists who specialize in addictions counselling for this feature, but we were ultimately referred to Alberta Health Services. AHS has provided us with an in-depth statement on addictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
AHS tells us that there has not been a substantial increase in the number of people who are seeking help from substance addiction.
“While the number of clients seeking help for substance use in South Zone has not changed significantly during the pandemic, we understand that stress and anxiety, combined with feelings of isolation and a disruption in our routines can lead to increased alcohol and substance use.”
Among those whose employment or social activities have been impacted by the pandemic, many have expressed concerns of isolation, boredom, stress, frustration, and worries that friends or family members may contract the virus.
These are all considered to be risk factors that can lead to a person turning to substances as a way of coping with stress.
It is not all bad news, however, as the pandemic has prompted positive progress on services that can help those who are struggling.
“One positive development has been the increase in service delivery options, including virtual and telephone care, which has reduced barriers for individuals who may have challenges with things like finding transportation or arranging for child care,” reads a portion of the statement from AHS.
Addiction and mental health staff are working with their clients to find new coping strategies or self-care practices that can be done safely during the pandemic. They are often situational and depend on a person-to-person basis.
Some supports available to Albertans struggling with addictions or mental health include: