Why Mental Health Must Be Priority During This Pandemic

There is grieving [that comes with] the loss of basic humanity connection, from actually going to a store together without a mask on, to going to a restaurant with no time limits, to going to a pub or a bar, or reconnecting with friends with no limitations...

Guest post by writer and mental health advocate Alexandra Chelse. Connect with her on Instagram @alexandrachelse.

The sunlight’s rays streamed in and out of my bedroom window that morning like a fried static connection – Day 31 of the COVID-19 lockdown. I drew back my curtains in the attempts to usher in more light, but the blazing head star had quarantined itself behind the clouds. Disappointed for the lack of vitamin D, I dragged myself over to my home office while my mind pounded out thoughts by the minute.

When the first day of the lockdown took effect, I was leisurely browsing through my Facebook newsfeed at home. That’s when I saw the fresh outcry pour out through a series of status updates in lieu of any official news report.

Shortly after that, a slew of texts from my overly-eager mother took over my attention when she informed me that she was being sent home because her daycare had been advised by Peel Public Health to close.

Despite hearing the news, I still had trouble grasping the reality confronting our nation and the world, because I safely assumed at that point that we would be back in our schools, churches, and workplaces before the end of month.

Within the initial stages of the pandemic, my family and I were living in a small town located in the Peel region. Back then it had been too early to fully understand the nature of what we were facing, so panic and fear rose to staggering levels all around us.

People had resorted to stockpiling essential items – toilet paper, sanitizer, food items – in a frenzy similar to how they did back in 2000 with the YZK bug. Lines for grocery stores were never-ending, and we would frequently have to scour all of the go-to places in our hometown and neighbouring cities for the products we relied on on an everyday basis. After waiting for what seemed like hours, we would finally gain access to the market only to find countless empty shelves.

Prior to the start of COVID-19, I had been underemployed – most of my paid gigs would come from conference events I would work at downtown Toronto. But since COVID-19 and with the new lockdown restrictions in effect, as the economy crashed and burned, good-paying jobs were getting harder and harder to find.

My efforts to find work were further hampered by my growing concerns about safety commuting on public transit and working outside my home. As time went on, I found myself less and less mentally prepped to take on the pressures of a permanent work contract.

When I was a teen, I dealt with depression and, in one horrible moment of weakness, had even attempted suicide. High school was a battleground that I barely survived.

Moving on to university and the demands of a competitive program in downtown Toronto had stretched me to the limits. I did graduate though—thanks to the ongoing support of my mother, sister, and fellow classmates who pushed me to the finish line.

The triggers I have recognized in myself throughout this pandemic are that I am more anxious and impatient than ever. I also sense in me overwhelming fear, un-motivation, and restlessness.

As an introvert, I typically enjoy my alone time, but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that I miss making in-person connections at lunches, potlucks, networking events, and even meetings.

In a shared house – my mother, my younger sister’s partner and one-year-old daughter, and a dog – always, everyday with nowhere to let out steam, it sometimes becomes difficult to keep the peace.

We had a few scary confrontations, which led me back to a place where I had to do some heavy internal work. I cried in a way that I hadn’t done in months.

Social media hasn’t been much help either. Some days I found myself at odds with my Facebook and Instagram friends who were using their time to learn a new hobby or recipe, publish a book, go back to school, launch their business, get married, or land the job of their dreams. While I was happy for the winners on my feed, seeing their success stories day after day just reminded me of my failures.

Here is transparency, unfiltered:

During this pandemic, I have found myself unemployed, single, hurting, disconnected, and still recovering from brokenness.

Most of all, I have found myself human.

As we hear about the impact COVID-19 has had on people’s lives all over the world, and the frontline workers who are actively serving on our behalf, I find myself grateful. For everyday that I am alive and ready to face another day – to write, to sing, dance, grow, and love.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 1.6 million Canadians already had unmet mental health care needs before COVID-19. The added toll that the pandemic has placed on families has only served to further worsen things for people dealing with a wide range of mental health challenges and conditions.

For those who have survived or who are currently coping with a mental health disorder, including post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, paranoia, anti-social, or borderline personality, the way we respond now is critical considering the drastic impact that COVID-19 has had on our lives.

Opening up conversations revolving around mental health is an essential start if we are ever going to make headway on this mounting crisis.

This recent reality may be the “new normal,” but understanding what is normal for you needs to be of foremost importance right now.

It will be different for every one of us. We may not be able to change our past, but we can do something about our futures. I share these insights with you now from the place of one person striving to recover from the massive shock of this past year, to the next.

Be Honest About Your Healing Journey

There is no one-size-fits all solution or universal arrival point when it comes to how we access our own individual healing.

Parul Shah, registered psychotherapist and founder of Embracing Empowerment Counselling Services, says that for those who have bore the brunt of severe trauma in the past, the reality is that it will inevitably drastically shape them and their outlook.

“Trauma changes people, period. It changes how we look at things, see things, feel things, process things,” says Shah. “Allow yourself to understand and explore your trauma.”

Monitor Your Media Intake

In this highly transformative digital era, how we connect to others no longer looks how it did ten, or even five, years ago. Thanks to the vast technology at our disposal, we now have the ability to communicate with users on our computer screens across a vast global sphere.

This means that we no longer have to be in the same room as another individual in order to see their face and sense their presence. It’s a strangely remarkable time.

While social media does have its place, Shah recommends its moderate use. “There is a lot of fear mongering in the media and on social media,” she says. “So, limit yourself to what you hear. It’s okay to block people you thought you wouldn’t block, even if it’s for a short term.”

Set Boundaries for Yourself

When it comes to the intentional care of your mental health during this global pandemic, Shah recommends allowing yourself the time and space you need to process your emotions. It isn’t worth it to put on false bravado or act stronger than you really are.

You are not made of steel.

Avoid your regular mental health check-in, and the results could be catastrophic.

“There will be a time when you will just fall, and you will have no idea why,” says Shah. “Set boundaries and limitations for yourself. What can I handle? What can I not handle? What is in my control and what is not in my control?”

Since it’s not likely that you can pour from an empty cup, taking time to be in touch with your own needs is the highest valuable service you can offer for yourself and others.

Allow Yourself to Grieve

There has been an insufferable amount of loss this year, more than we may have ever imagined possible. As we know, there is a grieving process that occurs when any kind of loss takes place.

In these Pandemic times, Shah defines grief to be more than just what is commonly associated with the demise of human life. While a well-rounded portrait, it may not often strike a cord with those currently working out their recovery.

So, when strong feelings surface within an individual, they won’t instantaneously recognize themselves to be in mournin