Maintaining mental health at home and on the front line
From essential workers on the frontline to the self-isolated at home, many are coping with new challenges
By Alanna Fairey
Human contact is a basic need, making self-isolation during the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic a mental health challenge for many.
The ongoing self-isolation and quarantine protocols can result in an individual feeling anxious, stressed and depressed, due to a disruption in their everyday routine and uncertainty of when the pandemic will end.
For first responders, frontline workers and security personnel who are working in the thick of the pandemic, they are faced with fatigue, burnout, and stress according to Bill Howatt, founder and president of Howatt Consulting and the chief of research and workforce productivity at The Conference Board of Canada.
“Essential workers have a different challenge — anybody that’s out every day, needs to live in a world where they need to protect themselves and stay vigilant to ensure that they don’t pick up a virus,” Howatt said. “In those folks, some will face burnout or stress, and those are things that we want to have mechanisms in place to pay attention to.”
Brian Knowler, CEO and lead trainer of Balance Leadership Training and Consulting, says that after discussing the matter with a number of psychologists and mental health workers, he found that most agree that new struggles will be faced.
“The next wave is going to be a lot of mental health issues, especially among people who have been on the frontlines driving themselves into the ground for the last six weeks and for however much longer to go,” Knowler said.
“I don’t think there’ll be enough social workers and psychologists and therapists to deal with the demand that’s going to happen.”
Howatt stressed the importance of checking in with essential workers and to not assume they require the same kind of support, as some may have different needs.
“Human beings are a finite resource, and they only have a certain amount of capacity,” Howatt said. “Not everybody has the same resiliency and not everyone’s going to be at the same place mentally.”
Adds Howatt: “It’s trying to integrate trying to be mindful of differences and access to support.”
Knowler, who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a police officer, notes that frontline and security workers who may be on medical leave or retired are looking at the COVID-19 situation wishing that there was more that they could do to help flatten the curve.
Knowler likens the experience to Survivor’s Guilt. He says that Save a Warrior, a U.S.-based organization that helps first responders and military personnel with PTSD ,recently “decided now that their services are open to anyone.”
Etobicoke, Ont.-based Toronto Forensic Consulting and Assessment (TFCA) specializes in treating trauma, stress, and burn-out, and provides their services to first responders, paramedics and those struggling with their mental health.
“When we look at first responders, we think that there is nothing that can penetrate their goals, or there’s nothing that can actually change their mental health, their family life,” said Dr. Tiana Mash, a forensic psychologist at TFCA.
“There’s always the fear of bringing it home to family and fear of the unknown,” TFCA vice-president Sean Black said. “Frontline workers deal with a lot of stuff on a daily basis in ways but given now the unknown, all the information that comes out, it’s being filtered. And that affects their mental health.”
Counselors are available to help individuals working in high-pressure jobs during COVID-19 to help them deal with the traumas and the stresses that they face on a daily basis.
Taking care at home
Whether working on the frontlines or self-isolating at home, finding healthy and efficient ways to cope is a universal need.
While the pandemic has shaken up most people’s daily lives, maintaining some semblance of a daily routine will help get through the pandemic funk.
“Find something that you enjoy doing, whether it be walk your dog… paint in the house, whatever you have to do find something to occupy your time,” Black said.
“If you sit and just think about everything that’s going on, you’re going to feel the effects of depression and anxiety as a result of the isolation and quarantine.”
Black also advised that constantly watching the news for COVID-19 updates could also be a trigger.
For those working in the field, and coming home to a loved one who is self-isolating, it is important to observe healthy boundaries, according to Howatt.
“If your partner is home isolated all day and you’ve been working, communicate about a stressful day, and be mindful of the strategy,” Howatt said. “Re-enter your home and say you might need half hour just to get your composure before you start checking in with each other,” Howatt said.
“This is a time where people need to be open and communicate and really focus on this is and understand that this is about preserving and supporting each other.”
Howatt, Knowler and Mash all stressed the importance of consuming alcohol in moderation. While a drink every now and then is allowed, overindulgence can pose a risk.
“If you have a drink once, nobody can complain,” Mash said. “If you do it twice you’re a party animal, if you do it by a third time you have to start questioning where you are going with this and if you are overreacting.”
There are currently a number of resources, like mental health webinars and cognitive behavioral therapy, that are available for free online. The Mental Health Commission of Canada, for example, has made a number of tools and resources available (mentalhealthcommission.ca).
One of the most important practices for mental health during the pandemic is basic self-care, which includes eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep.
“Self-care is not selfish – it’s survival,” Knowler said. “You can’t keep going through life without taking the time for yourself.”