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Preparing For A Winter With COVID-19

Add in the shorter days and cold weather and psychologists have greater cause to worry about the mental health of Canadians during what some experts are calling an impending “long, dark winter” of rising COVID-19 cases and tightened restrictions.

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, said anxiety has been the dominant mental health issue of the pandemic so far, with countless people worried about their health and job security and the uncertainty of when life will return to normal.

But there's danger, he said, if COVID anxiety turns into COVID depression over the winter — especially with case numbers rising after a period of relative control over the summer.

"When we saw that everything we were doing was having an effect and the numbers were dropping, that empowered us. It made us feel like we're beating this thing," Joordens said.

"And that is great until the numbers start to go up and we start hearing that more restrictions are going to be in place and ... we might start to feel like everything we did didn't matter. It came back anyway."

Joordens fears depression will replace COVID anxiety if individuals start thinking that way, displaying what's known in psychology as learned helplessness.

He said anxiety, which can be debilitating at times and have negative implications on the immune system, can often be self-managed. Depression, however, is a "far, far more dangerous state of mind."

"It requires a much quicker step towards getting somebody that really knows what they're doing to help," Joordens said. "So if we're heading into winter with less sunshine, less ability to get social interaction, less opportunity for aerobic activity, less job security for some ... I worry we might see depression rates increase.

"It does feel like we're heading into a long, dark winter."

Noreen Sibanda, a registered provisional psychologist in Edmonton, said restrictions on social gatherings can negatively impact peoples' mental health by taking away support systems and interactions they may not have even realized they needed.

She said it's important for people to keep the routine of communication going with their friends and family, just in a modified way this winter.

"Being alone doesn't have to mean being in isolation," she said. "We're going to be finding more creative ways of [interacting] again — having game night over Zoom, having a movie night where you're both watching the same movie separately.

"So it's [about] being cautious, but still continuing to do the same activities that we normally use to ground us."

JianLi Wang, a scientist at the Royal's Institute of Mental Health Research in Ottawa, said interactions don't necessarily need to be in person in order to be meaningful.

"Feelings of loneliness do not depend on how many people physically surround you," he said. "It depends on how you connect with others."

Loneliness and isolation can become even more apparent this holiday season if restrictions prevent people from gathering for Christmas dinner or office parties as they normally would.

But Sibanda said it's important to remember that's something we'll all be dealing with.

"It's not that the neighbours get to have a Christmas party and you don't," she said. "I think we're going to have a better prognosis if we realize that we're not going through this by ourselves.

Everyone is going through this transition, we're all trying different ways to stay connected."


Adapted from 'Psychologists worry about mental health in the first full COVID-19 winter" by Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press




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