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Coming Undone: What COVID-19 Pandemic Policies Have Done To Our Psyche

‘The constant state of anxiety and uncertainty, the isolation, the lack of meaning and purpose, these are all things that are accompanied with negative affect’

Our tendency to lock on to perceived threats is a remnant of our hunter-gatherer brains, anthropologist Samuel Veissière says. From a “fitness survival perspective,” it’s important to be able to identify threats in the environment. “We only became a predator much later in evolutionary history,” Veissière says. So we tend to over interpret risks. The human mind, he says, is very bad at estimating probability.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, Veissière and many of his colleagues in mental health worried about the impact of fear, the impact of isolation and life-halting pandemic policies on the human psyche. “It’s sad, but not surprising,” says Veissière, an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University, that a new national survey suggests a sizeable swath of the population is coming undone.

According to the survey, one-quarter of Canadians are experiencing moderate to severe levels of anxiety. A similar proportion felt lonely occasionally, or most of the time, in the past week; 20 per cent reported feeling depressed. Women, parents with children at home and younger adults, the 18- to 39-year-olds, are faring worse than others. Nearly one-quarter of the 1,005 people surveyed between May 8 and 12 reported binge-drinking in the past week. Significant numbers reported feeling nervous and edgy, or having trouble relaxing. We’re feeling easily annoyed and irritable, the survey tells us. We’ve spent an unhealthy number of days over the past two weeks worrying “something awful might happen.”

The findings come from the first wave in what will be a series of surveys by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, in collaboration with Delvinia, a research tech and data collection company. Delvinia is offering free access to the survey data, as a giveback “to help mental health professionals get ahead of what’s coming,” the company says.

What’s coming is anyone’s guess. While many people’s anxiety will recede as the country re-opens, Veissière says there is reason to believe the trend will continue among those already at risk, including those financially devastated by the lockdowns.

When faced with an acute stress — a natural disaster, like a hurricane or earthquake — we mourn our dead and pull our worlds back together. With COVID-19, there is still so much deep uncertainty, “because the medical news changes every day,” says Veissière, co-director of the Culture, Mind and Brain Program. Depending on your bias, “if you’re a ‘no-big-deal’ kind of person, you’ll find the information confirms that bias.” However, the same is true for catastrophizers, those who believe something is far worse than it actually is.

Fear spread in early March when the World Health Organization initially pegged the death rate of COVID-19 at 3.4 per cent. This week, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s “best estimate” put the overall death rate at 0.4 per cent for those who show symptoms, while the agency estimates 35 per cent of infected people never develop symptoms. While the disease has massacred nursing homes,  Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis writes in the Boston Review and disproportionately affected the poor, the homeless, “at the same time, we should not look away from the real harms of the most drastic of our interventions,” including the toll they have have taken on our psychological well-being. “Feelings of numbness, powerlessness and hopelessness are now so common as to verge on being considered normal,” James Hamblin writes in The Atlantic.

Canada shed two million jobs in April because of COVID-19. “Flattening the curve” didn’t protect our elderly or frail. We’ve lost our usual routines, our social and physical contacts. Many have struggled with boredom and frustration. According to the survey, younger adults appear to be the most anxious, while those 60 and older much less so, which Veissière notes is almost an inverse correlation between how much people are actually at risk, and how anxious they’re feeling — COVID-19 poses a far bigger physical threat to the elderly.

“But Generation Z and millennials were already very vulnerable, they were already prone to anxiety and depression and for many of them, I fear the confinement has made it much worse,” Veissière says.

It may be the case that people who were already anxious are just feeling a heightened sense of it. “We don’t really know, especially because we don’t have that comparator to say, this is how many would be experiencing lifetime anxiety prior to the pandemic,” said CAMH scientist Tara Elton-Marshall. “But it’s important for people to understand that if you are experiencing those symptoms, you’re not alone. This is an unprecedented time.” (CAMH has a list of resources on COVID-19 and mental health on its website.)

It’s not surprising that women are struggling more than men, because women had higher levels of depression and anxiety, pre-COVID. Women are also more likely to have lost their jobs, and to be bearing the brunt of child and elder care, says Dr. Valerie Taylor, chief of the University of Calgary’s department of psychiatry.

And home isn’t always a safe space. “We’re seeing an increase in domestic abuse,” Taylor says. Kids Help Phone, a national youth support service, has reported more than 50 per cent increases in texts and calls.

More effort is now being placed on coping and wellness, and that’s important, Taylor says. But three-quarters of the population didn’t suddenly develop a mental illness. “These are stressful times and there are things to be concerned about. But a healthy level of anxiety gives people agency,” she says. It makes us behave in certain ways to reduce the risk to ourselves and others — wash our hands frequently, physically distance, wear a mask. “It’s when the feelings start to impair functioning in some way — functioning in your ability to work, to parent, to be present in a healthy way in your relationships, that a health professional needs to be involved,” Taylor says. We need to target people at high risk, like frontline workers, and expand crisis lines, she says.

As long as SARS-CoV-2 is circulating the planet, we remain susceptible. And because anxiety is about uncertainty, the what-ifs, rumination can become almost manic, Veissière says. “We’re still not sure what happened, where the virus came from and COVID conspiracy theories are spreading.”

Fear and panic can spread, too, Veissière says, but so can comfort, reassurance, feelings of safety, feeling of “effervescence” — like the Woodstock-level gatherings in Toronto parks. “Just the simple act of being able to share food and stories with your friends has become very special.” It’s an example of positive affect, he says, the feeling that things are going to be okay.

“The constant state of anxiety and uncertainty, the isolation, the lack of meaning and purpose, these are all things that are accompanied with negative affect, which make us more prone to being victims of our own emotions,” he says.

It’s important to maintain a sense of routine. Simple things, like getting dressed and getting washed “and appearing better for the sake of others,” Veissière says. “We’re constantly missing out in these tiny little micro actions, but these micro actions eventually amount to us becoming better persons for the sake of others.” We can rediscover the important ritual of family dinners and device-free meals. “Doing things that people had lost tack of because of the rat race of our everyday lives.”

As the world begins to reopen, “as people continue to calm down,” he’s hopeful there will be a renewed sense of thankfulness and gratitude, for the things we had taken for granted.


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