Are The Kids Alright?

Staving off a COVID-19 “echo” mental health pandemic

The arrival of COVID-19 in Canada in the late winter of 2020, and the ensuing lockdown in March, put everyone on edge. What was this mysterious threat to our health? How dangerous was it? Who were the people who were most vulnerable to its effects? How can we avoid getting the coronavirus that could make us have to endure the disease COVID-19?

Disturbing statistics

Now, months into the pandemic, it should come as no surprise that the emergence of COVID-19 has led to a spike in mental health issues around the world. A Statistics Canada Crowdsource study indicated that the number of people experiencing what they believe to be “poor mental health” tripled in a matter of months – from 8% in 2018 to 24% in the spring of 2020. This perspective was echoed in a Mental Health Research Canada study that reported 22% of Canadians were experiencing “high anxiety” and 13% were dealing with heightened levels of depression. Montreal’s public health agency noted that almost 50% of young people between the ages of 18 and 30 reported that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health mostly due to stress caused by job loss and financial stress. Meanwhile, Kids Help Phone experienced a 350% spike in phone calls, prompting the agency to put out an urgent appeal for volunteers.  

Overwhelmed but resilient

The pandemic is creating a collective stress that is impacting all of society. While health officials continue to work to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, mental health officials worry that we are nearing a tipping point that will see society overwhelmed with people who are crippled by anxiety, laid out by depression and unable to cope with on-going isolation. 

For the time being, here’s the good news (and this might become outdated soon): the COVID-19 pandemic has forced society into a state of resilience. While people are openly admitting to feeling anxious, depressed and isolated, they are recognizing that they need to find ways to cope because the coronavirus pandemic is the current life and death priority – and health care resources need to be focused there. For the most part, people are acknowledging their feelings and trying not to get too overwhelmed. The hope is that the resilience gained during the pandemic will translate into improved mental health where people can gage what they can handle and build on that strength. 

The “echo” pandemic

However, mental health professionals fear that a reckoning is coming. Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) National CEO Margaret Eaton told a parliamentary committee, “The hard truth is that our mental health system in Canada already lacked capacity to meet demand before this pandemic began. We must act now to ensure we are prepared for a surge in mental health problems as a result of COVID-19.” 

The experts are calling it the “echo” pandemic. While COVID-19 is the crisis that dramatically changed the way we behave and interact, the accompanying emotional trauma associated with the pandemic could prove to be the “echo” that forces people to sort through a myriad of distressing mental health issues. This is why the mental health community is warning: we better get ready. 

Preparing for the “echo”

Once society begins to get back to a semblance of normal, the “surge” Eaton is speaking about may hit and Guidance Counsellors could be the first to witness what is coming. Intuitively, guidance counsellors know that mental health concerns are going to be front and centre in the wake of COVID-19. They fear the “echo” as much as anyone and, seeing that mental health was the number one concern before the pandemic, they want to be positioned to deal with this critical issue once things normalize. As of now, most Guidance Departments are functioning in a state of modified lockdown, where access to in-person appointments is either severely restricted or not permitted. Once a modicum of normalcy returns, and students let their guard down, the emotional floodgates may open as those stuck in pandemic isolation fully experience the anxiety and stress they have kept bottled up.  

Some mental health strategies

While mental health experts argue with the government about what steps need to be taken to deal with the potential “echo” pandemic, guidance counsellors can get to work in helping students with some coping strategies right out of the gate. 

Stay calm – adolescence is a developmental period prone to emotional mood swings. While an adult might see things through a more stoic lens, adolescents are more apt to panic or grow despondent. Guidance counsellors can model calm for their students and encourage a
long-term vision regarding fears and anxiety associated with COVID-19. For example, while SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 do pose a legitimate health risk, treatment options have improved and vaccines are being tested to mitigate the spread and intensity of the illness. The world is determined to come to terms with the novel coronavirus and headway is being made. 

Stay connected – some students have dropped away and become disconnected from their family, friends and school. Guidance counsellors can do everything in their power to both encourage students to stay connected – even if “virtual” connections are the only option – and to connect with students via in-person meetings (if that is an option) as well as phone or video calls. Sometimes all a student needs to hear is a message like “we’re all in this together” from a caring adult to feel connected to their school.  

Encourage a routine – a predictable daily routine and proper sleep patterns are good for everyone’s mental health. Guidance counsellor’s can emphasize the importance of these practices to their students as a way of coping with the pandemic. They should also encourage students to exercise – even a brisk walk would help. Exercise accompanied by attainable goals – like 10,000 steps a day or 150 minutes of intense cardiovascular activity per week – are proven aids in maintaining stronger mental health. Another strategy to build into a student’s routine is a limit to screen time. Remote learning has already made people more reliant on their devices. However, a perpetual loop of school-based and socially based screen time could lead to feelings of heightened anxiety and isolation. 

Encourage acceptance – COVID-19 is here and, if it is anything like influenza, will not be eradicated. SARS-CoV-2 will mutate and vaccines will be created and adjusted in the same way that influenza vaccines are created and adjusted. Society is adopting a long-term strategy to deal with this particular coronavirus. Encourage students to accept this reality. They can still be disappointed that their high school experience has been dramatically altered and frustrated that they cannot do the things they were once able to do so freely. Acceptance of a situation, a feeling or a condition is a critical coping strategy when dealing with hardship. 

None of these strategies for coping with the pandemic should come as a surprise to guidance counsellors – these are the tools counsellors turned to before COVID-19. However, this epoch in history is different. If a mental health pandemic is on the horizon, guidance counsellors – as frontline workers – can position themselves to stave off the more intense aspects of what might be coming. Through a thoughtful, measured and realistic approach to what is happening in the world, guidance counsellors can listen to the concerns of their students and help them build a resilience that transcends anxiety and stress. In the meantime, guidance counsellors stand on guard, ready to help in case the “echo” pandemic comes to fruition. 

By Sean Dolan