Pamphlets regarding mental health services adorn a table at suicide information night earlier this year. Paige Mueller/The Free Press

Mental health in the time of COVID-19

Taking care of our mental health is just as important as protecting our physical health

Although lately the news is focusing on ways to take care of your physical health and the physical health of those around you, there is another side to this pandemic that should also be considered.

Mental health is something that is absolutely vital to our wellbeing during this time of COVID-19 crisis. With self isolation and social distancing measures becoming the norm of late, it’s increasingly important to check your mental health every now and again and realize what a toll these stresses can take.

Tyla Charbonneau is a Fernie psychologist and also a founding member of the Elk Valley Suicide Task Force. She said it’s important to recognize that it’s normal to feel stressed out in situations like these.

“It is normal to feel sad, to feel irritable, and to be confused or frustrated,” she said. “Any emotion that shows up is okay as most of us have never been through anything like this before. It may even be normal to lose a few nights of sleep.”

Although many of these reactions are normal and part of a collective experience, Charbonneau noted that there are signs of abnormal behaviours that indicate a person requires professional help. This includes “an inability to sleep or get out of bed for several days, violence towards others, repeated anger without ownership of actions, severe hopelessness, an inability to focus on anything but the news or the virus, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, lack of interest in any activity, hallucinations and/or unusual behaviour.”

Charbonneau explained that as the virus progresses and the social isolation continues, we may see an increase in anxiety and depression, especially with people who are already predisposed to mental health challenges.

“We may see individuals who are stressed and worried about their health, their family’s health, the economy, and their future,” she explained further. “Isolation and fear can also bring unknown underlying mental health issues to light. Awareness of this is really important so we need to be checking in on our friends and family often.”

Although this is a scary time, Charbonneau added that there is a possible upside to this current situation. Being forced to cut back on our many busy activities might give us the time we need to slow down and hit the reset button.

“It can be a time to reflect on ourselves, come together with our families and give ourselves a break from often hectic everyday lives. It can also be a time to look out for our neighbours, engage in small acts of kindness (within distancing rules), and create initiatives that may help our community in the present and in the future.”

For those of us who are struggling with mental health during this crisis and beyond, Charbonneau said there are lots of things we can be doing to help cope.

Examining the facts of your situation, and ignoring the irrational thoughts that run through your brain is one method she mentioned. Another is being intentional about your news intake by not being plugged into social media 24/7.

“Give space for your emotions, name them, allow yourself to feel them, lean into them,” Charbonneau also advised. “Ignoring these emotions or pushing them away does not really work as they just show up later in unexpected ways like yelling at your family, picking a fight or emotionally distancing yourself from others.”

You can also take care of your mental health by going for a walk, writing down your feelings, trying meditation, taking time to move your body, making a routine and practicing gratitude every day by listing things you are thankful for.

There is also the option of reaching out to a therapist. Many in the Elk Valley and in B.C. in general offer online or over the phone counselling sessions that can help you to work through your emotions. Charbonneau noted that although she was recently mandated by the College of Psychologists and the Ministry of Health to cease in person sessions unless it’s an emergency, there are other virtual options.

At the end of the day, being kind to one another is of paramount importance right now. Charbonneau even noted that shaming people is counterproductive in these trying times.

“Please remember that fear and anxiety show up in all kinds of ways for everyone. You never know what someone else is going through. Shaming people for what they buy or if they go outside, whether they keep their business open or not, is not going to help anyone. We are all in this together. Kindness is key right now in the world more than ever.”

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