Is anxiety a problem? You’re not alone, says CMHA branch head

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While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected most people’s mental health to some degree, the Lambton Kent branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association has found anxiety has been the most common issue in the past year.

“It has been challenging, I think, for everybody to cope,” Alan Stevenson, CEO of the local branch, said.

At the provincial level, the mental health association has conducted three surveys during the pandemic. In December, 35 per cent of Ontarians said their mental health was good, which was down from 52 per cent last spring.

“Particularly, 35 per cent of Ontarians say that their anxiety level is high or very high,” Stevenson said.

The local branch also tracks the number of people who reach out for help. Stevenson said there was a decline in March 2020 because people were hunkering down during the first lockdown but there had been a “steady increase” since May 2020.

“While our numbers were down drastically for about two months, they increased significantly since then. In particular, crisis calls year over year increased by 17 per cent,” he said.

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The branch’s response was to offer virtual care at the pandemic’s onset, while never closing down in-person care. Stevenson said this helped the organization care for more people because it limited travel time, and it helped address the growing demand after the first few months of the pandemic.

Another change was redeploying more staff to front end intakes.

“Having more people with the appropriate skills (in those roles) just enabled us to respond to that increased demand for new people that we have never seen before,” Stevenson said.

He said wait times at the branch also dropped initially in the pandemic because of the “lull” between March and May, as well as the use of online services to see people more quickly.

“Wait times are not increasing right now, but we do obviously have a concern that if the volume of outreaches – people seeking services – continues to climb then we may be in a situation where there will be increased wait times,” Stevenson said.

The association has also been providing general advice to address issues like anxiety. These skills they’ve promoted include managing media consumption related to COVID and using trusted media sources, maintaining physical activity, visiting natural areas and staying connected to the extent possible.

“We really encourage people to be helpful to others and there is a sense of purpose that you gain from being able to help a neighbour or a friend that may have some additional challenges or barriers, like an elderly person that may not be able to get out to help with groceries,” Stevenson said.

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These types of habits are also some ways to avoid turning to alcohol or drugs to cope, he said.

“One of the most profound things I’ve read and I just keep repeating to people is that you don’t have to pretend to be OK,” he said. “Asking for help, whether it be from a professional or friend or a family member, is actually one of the keys to opening up and not making the choice to deal with it with substances.”

The association also launched a free program called Bounce Back, a self-guided help service with telephone coaching and online resources. Stevenson said it is “tremendously effective in helping the majority of people deal with anxiety and depression.”

The association is also looking ahead to the potential long-term mental health effects from the pandemic.

Stevenson said they anticipate the impacts will be a “generational thing” rather than something that lasts a year or two.

“We know that on a much smaller scale, for example, research indicates that many people who worked in health care through SARS experienced post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms that lasted three years,” he said. “This pandemic is so much bigger and longer and affecting so many more people, so we can get hints from that information, but it doesn’t tell us the whole story.”

He said mental health professionals sometimes call this a “shadow pandemic.”

“We already know that one in five people in a normal year is going to experience a mental health problem,” he said. “We expect that it’s going to be greater for a long time.”

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Stevenson said the organization expects there will always be virtual and telephone options available for clients.

Another change made during the pandemic that he said should continue long term is more of an emphasis on people experiencing homelessness. He said almost overnight people who were “precariously housed” – maybe couch surfing at friends’ homes – became homeless last year.

“What we did along with many partners, especially the municipalities, is we then turned our attention to providing outreach and linkages both for mental illness as well as substance abuse issues amongst that population,” Stevenson said.

“I honestly don’t see that changing. I think homelessness will continue to be a more serious problem than we realized prior to the pandemic.”

The CEO said everyone can play a role in supporting the mental health of others “just by being supportive and listening and encouraging people to seek help if more professional help is required.”

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