Maintaining good mental health a challenge for many during pandemic lockdown.

Allan Bradbury
Kicker

Leaving the house is a struggle for Helene Goyer of St. John’s at the best of times. Now the COVID-19 pandemic has made that struggle worse.

Goyer has agoraphobia, or a fear of public places. Goyer used to be able to break up her errands by going to one place per day. Now, because of public health recommendations, she does all of her shopping on one day a week, which she finds very difficult.

Goyer feels a lot of pressure being the only person in her household able to safely leave the home. Other members of the household have compromised immune systems.

“I’ve hidden upstairs in my closet, crying my eyes out, hoping they’ll think I’m gone for a walk or something,” she said. “So, nobody will tell me, ‘We need this, we need that, you got to go get this.’”

On March 18, Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health, Janice Fitzgerald, declared a public health emergency. That declaration led to the institution of many rules and restrictions in the hope of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Life in the province has been changing ever since.

Initially, Goyer thought it would be a great situation. “There’s no stress or pressure to make doctor’s appointments to get to. You know all these places that I’m supposed to be going because nobody is supposed to be going anywhere, so it’s like, ‘Oh, thank God, now I can finally stay home and relax.’”

But that wasn’t the case. Being the only one who can leave the house has been hard for her.

Helene Goyer is just one example of how the global COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people in Newfoundland and Labrador with mental health struggles. However, it’s not just people with chronic mental health issues who are struggling during the pandemic. COVID-19 has affected the mental health of all kinds of people across the province.

According to a Statistics Canada report from April 24, the number of Canadians age 15 or older who would say they perceive their mental health as “very good or excellent” had fallen from a similar survey done two years prior. In 2018, 68 per cent of Canadians said they believed their mental health to be “very good or excellent.” In 2020, that number has fallen 14 points to 54 per cent.

A bar graph showing how people's perceived health has changed between 2018 and 2020.
Statistics Canada says people have a lower perceived mental health as compared to two years ago. Less than 60 per cent of Canadians report having “very good or excellent mental health.” Source: statcan.gc.ca

The Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland and Labrador chapter (CMHA-NL) has been reaching out to employers to offer training programs to help employees and employers alike identify mental health issues. John Abbott, CEO of the local chapter, says stress and anxiety seem to be affecting a lot of people.

“What we’re seeing, and I think it’s right across the board,” Abbott said, “is there are very, very high levels of anxiety – about the health elements of the pandemic, the impact on the workplace, the impact of working at home when you have child-care responsibilities.”

Abbott also says people are struggling with other issues such as stress about isolation and job security.

Students struggle with impact on learning

Students are among those who have experienced a range of mental health issues. Kendall Pittman recently completed his second year in the geomatics engineering technology program at the College of the North Atlantic’s Ridge Road campus. He says the transition to online schooling was difficult but it could have gone better on campus.

Group projects were stressful, and instructors had to change assignments so students could do them without specialized equipment kept at the college. Groups also had to meet online to get their work done.

“There was a lot of math and write-ups to do at the very end of the project that it was definitely a lot harder because we’re just doing it over Facebook Messenger,” Pittman said. “It certainly made it a lot harder than it should have been.”

For our YouTube series, Kicker’s Ken Meeker spoke with some elementary school students about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them.

Pittman says getting work done at home was a lot harder because it’s more difficult to maintain focus on studies at home as opposed to being on campus.

“It was hard to have as much motivation when you’re kind of just pushing yourself to do the studying and all your work at home,” he said. “It certainly would have been so much easier and so much better if it was still in the classroom.”

Pittman also had a summer work term cancelled and, while it won’t affect his academic standing, he does worry it may affect his job prospects going forward if he doesn’t have as much experience on his résumé. His hope is to be able to complete what would have been a second work term next winter.

“I’ll certainly admit. I feel like they feel like I’d look a lot better to have the two work terms instead of just one. That’s for sure.”

Now that he’s finished his school semester, Pittman is occupying himself with skateboarding and going for walks. He also picked up the guitar again after being a few years away from it.

A photo of a young man playing the guitar.
Kendall Pittman is a student at the Ridge Road campus of the College of the North Atlantic. He’s spent time in isolation getting back into playing guitar. Allan Bradbury/Kicker

College of the North Atlantic is providing resources for those suffering from poor mental health during the pandemic.

As a guidance counsellor at the College of the North Atlantic’s Prince Philip Drive campus, Ted Power helps students with their mental health on a regular basis. He says the issues people come to him for now are tied to the pandemic.

Power says he’s helped students deal with all manner of issues when it comes to their mental health.

“It could be finance; it could be relationships, but this is an odd one,” Power said. “It’s the first time that everybody is going through it at the same time, and everyone’s handling it differently.”

“If she feels that I’m starting to get a little panic-stricken, I get a paw come across my arm, and it just makes everything that much better.”

-Helene Goyer

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of many different parts of society in many different ways for many different reasons. This means there are many different coping strategies.

For Helene Goyer, bringing her dog along on her errands helps with her anxiety. She named her Cape Shore waterdog Mobile after the eastern Newfoundland town where she rescued her.

A woman and her dog which helps her during times of anxiety and stress.
Helene Goyer and her dog, Mobile. Goyer says Mobile helps her when she feels stressed or anxious. Allan Bradbury/Kicker

“If I my anxiety starts to go up or anything like that, she gives me no other choice but to touch her, and that whole touching her and rubbing her and stuff – it, it’s really calming. If she feels that I’m starting to get a little panic-stricken, I get a paw come across my arm, and it just makes everything that much better.”

Power says CNA is also helping students by offering contact through virtual coffee breaks and online game nights.

The college has also allowed students to trim back their schedules if they are finding it challenging to keep up now that some programs have shifted online.

Power also meets with some students via Skype to help them work through their mental health challenges.

He says some students’ challenges stem from feeling disconnected from classmates and friends.

“The challenge of this new time is their challenge to do that,” Power said. “To kind of push themselves to maybe talk to somebody they haven’t talked to for a while, you know, to stay connected because you’ve got to for your health.”

Abbott says the CMHA-NL is encouraging people not to focus on their problems but to remain focused on the present because the future is still so far unknown.

“The advice that we are giving, and receiving ourselves, is to just stay focused on the moment and deal with issues that are immediately in front of you,” Abbott said. “Focus on work you have to do that day. If it’s childcare issues, how am I going to manage today and sort of plan for tomorrow but not try to project out, you know a week or a month or two months ahead because nobody really knows what the future is.”

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