A program that teaches cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims to give people practical tools to improve their mental health by changing problematic patterns of thinking or behaviour, is being offered in the Comox Valley and Campbell River areas. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE

OPINION: Pandemic is severely straining our mental health

‘I am afraid that many people are in such despair that they can’t see past it’

The more public health officials loosen restrictions on what British Columbians should and should not do, the more this COVID-19 virus spreads, killing more of our seniors, particularly those living in facilities.

The more restrictions are tightened, however, the more we are seeing intense feelings of stress and anxiety, increased levels of despair, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness.

It is a near impossible balancing act, one that seems to be even harder to manage during this second wave of the pandemic, according to data gathered by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in partnership with UBC researchers.

Among people in British Columbia who completed the CMHA/UBC survey, 69 per cent indicated they are worried about the second wave of the virus, with 55 per cent worried about a loved one or family member dying. Only 22 per cent feel hopeful.

As winter approaches, 42 per cent of British Columbians said their mental health has deteriorated since March. More than a third of British Columbians (36 per cent) are worried about finances.

“Cold weather, uncertainty, eroded social networks and restrictions on holiday gatherings are hitting at a time when people are already anxious, hopeless and fearful that things are going to get worse,” CMHA CEO Margaret Eaton said in a press release. “I am afraid that many people are in such despair that they can’t see past it.”

Of great concern is the sharp increase in the risk of suicide this fall, with one in 10 Canadians experiencing recent thoughts or feelings of suicide, up from six per cent in the spring and 2.5 per cent throughout pre-pandemic 2016.

“We are seeing a direct relationship between social stressors and declining mental health,” said lead researcher Emily Jenkins, a UBC nursing professor who studies mental health and substance use.

“As the pandemic wears on and cases and related restrictions rise, a good proportion of our population is suffering. Particularly concerning are the levels of suicidal thinking and self-harm, which have increased exponentially since before the pandemic and are further magnified in certain sub-groups of the population who were already experiencing stigma, exclusion, racism and discrimination.”

Thirteen per cent of people surveyed in British Columbia indicated that they have increased their use of substances as a way to cope. Sixteen per cent of people in British Columbia have reported increased alcohol use, while many have also increased their use of other substances, including cannabis (six per cent) and prescription medication (three per cent).

The CMHA says this pandemic is underlining that mental health that policy-level interventions are required, and even before the pandemic, the mental healthcare system in Canada was not meeting people’s needs due to long waitlists, access issues, inequity and underfunding.

“Given this new data, the ongoing devastating losses due to the overdose crisis, and the trend of worsening mental health across the population, the Province should absolutely ensure mental health and substance use care are a top mandate priority in the coming months and beyond,” said Jonny Morris, CEO of CMHA, BC Division.

One resource we hope can help, at least some people in some ways, is The Elements of Mental Wellness, a pamphlet distributed in the print edition of The Chilliwack Progress last week. Already in the works for years, the timing couldn’t have been better for the release of the document produced by Chilliwack Healthier Community.

If you didn’t get a copy of the Elements of Mental Wellness, stop by the office of The Chilliwack Progress and pick up a copy, or you can email me at editor@theprogress.com and I’ll send you a list of locations where the guides are available.

And keep Dr. Bonnie Henry’s reassuring catchphrase top of mind: “Be kind, be calm and be safe.”

READ MORE: Simple mental health guide coming soon to households across Chilliwack


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