At Issue: COVID and Winter Combine to Wreak Havoc On Our Mental Health

Up until recently, there had been one saving grace of experiencing COVID-19 in Vancouver: for the most part, the weather was nice. Sure, there were pockets of rain and wind, but the temperate rainforest we call home was nice enough to provide a lot of sunshine from March 2020 onward.

Of course, as you’re reading this—barring another major plot twist and hey, who knows—that’s changed. Long nights and drum circles have turned into cold November rain and all of us have been forced back into our homes. The isolation is real, and some have genuine concern about whether Vancouver is prepared for what the COVID pandemic will bring as the weather turns—particularly in a city rife with mental health and addiction issues.

No one would be surprised to learn that the number of opioid-related deaths in Vancouver in 2020 was significantly higher than those connected to COVID (around 900 for the former and about 120 for the latter by early October).

The B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) reports that about 17 percent of British Columbians are experiencing a mental health or substance use issue today. Because of differences in mental health laws, it’s hard to get direct comparisons to other Canadian jurisdictions. In Ontario, for example, studies suggest around 10 percent are dealing with substance use. But a 2015 report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information showed that B.C. had the highest percentage of mental health-related hospitalizations in the country, doubling every province except P.E.I.

During COVID, though, things have predictably gotten worse for Vancouverites. “Absolutely, we’ve seen a significant increase on our services,” says Jonny Morris, CEO of CMHA British Columbia. The organization’s province-wide BounceBack depression and anxiety program, for example, has seen a 100-percent uptick compared to the same time last year.

Morris doesn’t see it getting much better, either: “It’s cliché to say these are unprecedented times, but for the vast majority of people, it’s the first time we’ve entered winter in this state of emergency. So I think it’s important to emphasize that lots of people are feeling the impacts of the pandemic.”

Vancouver councillor Lisa Dominato agrees. She campaigned on the importance of mental health and has advocated for increased programs and services while on council, including a recent motion to create a cross-jurisdictional task force to battle mental health and addiction issues.

“Since the pandemic, I’m certainly hearing that people are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, frightened, anxious and depressed,” she says. “There’s a mental health aspect to it, in terms of the psychological and emotional toll it’s taking on people.” Dominato cites national increases in alcohol consumption and domestic violence, as well as the provincial opioid crisis, as proof that Canadians are having a harder time.

As for solutions to a problem that might be about to get a whole lot worse, she points out government-funded organizations and programs like the Stigma Free Society, Family Services of Greater Vancouver and the CMHA as places for those in need to seek out. More broadly, she recommends exercise, distraction and connecting with friends.

“At the city level, we’ve also had success with creating spaces for people to meet outdoors, whether it be patios or outdoor popups—spaces where people can congregate safely,” she notes. “Dance classes, yoga classes, places we can create to have outdoor, covered spaces where people can still be distanced. I think those things do help with mental health.” 

Another area where mental health problems can be addressed is the workplace.

Garth Taylor is the president of North Vancouver-based Hatfield Consultants, which offers environmental and social services for clients all over the world. Hatfield was the winner of the Workplace Wellness category in the inaugural Business of Good Awards put on by our sister publication, BCBusiness magazine. And though Taylor reports that 2020 was a successful year, business-wise, for his company and its 150 or so Canadian employees—none of whom had to be laid off—COVID was a major concern for Hatfield.

“Productivity has been high, work has continued to come in, people have continued to be busy,” says Taylor. “But I think we do worry, longer term. Our biggest worry is the potential loss of cohesion in the group and the opportunities for people to interact with team members beyond just virtually. We have a fairly unique culture in the industry and we wonder, with people becoming disconnected over a long period of time, what impact that might have on their mental health.”

Hatfield execs have tried to cushion the COVID blow with things like daily huddles—five- to 10-minute team check-ins at the start of days to get people together and motivated. “We’ve very much encouraged our managers to stay on top of the connections with their staff and to reach out and do one-on-one connections to make sure people are managing,” says Taylor, adding that they’ve also been sending out weekly briefings (at the start of the pandemic it was daily) detailing what’s been going on with the company. “The transparency and honesty that we’ve baked into those communications have made people feel a sense of security about their jobs and what we’re doing at the corporate level to keep everyone employed and the company moving forward.”

For Jonny Morris and the CMHA, COVID has only exacerbated existing issues. “I like the analogy of a car that hasn’t had any maintenance for a few decades,” he says.

“Now you’re starting to maintain it, and you’ve got a lot of work to do to restore the car. And that was before the pandemic hit. For governments, mental health is something we need to protect and care for, and that’s going to take resources. And I’d say there is still a ways to go with stigma and discrimination. We see that playing out with NIMBYism and some of the very unacceptable behaviour toward homeless people and people struggling. We still have a battle to fight there on making it ok to reach out for help.”

In some ways, councillor Dominato says, the pandemic is a reminder of what can actually be done if people work together. “What we saw with the pandemic was urgency, intentionality and coordination from all levels of government,” she argues. “It was ‘We have an emergency, we need to deal with this.’ I would love to see us take those same things to mental health and addictions, not only in our city, but in our province and country.”