We need to prepare for the psychological fallout of COVID-19 before it hits

The sudden increase in mental health problems following the pandemic has the potential to overwhelm our care capacity

Existing symptoms of anxiety and depression are worsening under COVID-19. Photo: Maxwell Gawlick/The Peak

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

A global pandemic is not a good time for anyone. Even those of us of the introvert persuasion are now looking at our four walls and wondering when it will be safe to have unrestricted interactions with friends and family again. And yet, as we start to settle into a “new normal” of face coverings, social distancing, and terrified Google searches at the onset of any cough or sore throat, it’s worth taking the time to shore up our emotional and structural defenses against the coming tsunami of mental health problems that is the inevitable result of this epoch of global upheaval.

Even as BC has seen a flattening of the COVID-19 curve, the pandemic continues to rage on elsewhere in Canada and around the world. The World Health Organization reported its single largest daily increase in cases on June 22 — a whopping 183,020 new reported infections. These new cases add to the strain already caused by the virus: the stress on healthcare systems, the loss of employment, economic stagnation, loss of social support systems and, of course, loss of life. Even the ever-growing number of questions around how the virus operates within the body is a source of continuing stress, with some patients experiencing debilitating symptoms months after the virus is undetectable in their systems.

All of these compounding stressors are a problem, not only in the immediate moment, but also in the long-term ramifications on collective and individual mental health. We are currently in the “active trauma” stage of this pandemic. We are focused on the immediate problems in front of us: how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, while also guarding against complete economic collapse and the inability to support ourselves. But dealing with trauma can only be pushed back so long. Eventually that bill is going to come due, and many, many people aren’t going to have the support they need to get through the coming crisis. 

Just before COVID-19 came to Canada, mental health care was still somewhat of a grey area in this nation. Data on wait times to receive care for mental health issues wasn’t available for many regions, making necessary funding initiatives difficult to assess and allocate nationally. Of the data that does exist, patients seeking care could expect to wait for over a year to have their specific needs addressed, depending on where they live.

These disparities and holes in data are worrying for the same reason that an unrestrained viral pandemic is worrying. If a huge number of people suddenly need mental health services to get through the onset of months of stress, anxiety, and depression, there is a very good chance that these needs will overwhelm our current mental health care capacity — especially where we don’t actually know what that capacity is. What this means is that people with existing mental health problems may find it more difficult to access services with increased strain on the system, while those who are experiencing a mental health crisis for the first time may not have access to the resources needed to identify, nor the counselling needed to address, these new conditions.

There is no doubt that while we are still wrestling with COVID-19, resources must be funnelled into helping our communities stay safe and healthy. However, as the immediate scramble to get a hold on the virus seems to be over (at least in Canada) now is a good time to start directing resources toward the future aftermath of the virus. In particular, both provincial and federal governments need to take steps to assess their current mental health care capacities, and the projected increase in care needs post-COVID. Additional resources need to be subsequently allocated into areas specializing in anxiety and depression counceling, as well as suicide prevention. 

The SFSS summary in “The COVID-19 Pandemic & the Student Experience” reports that nearly 50% of students have experienced worsening mental health as a result of the pandemic. It also states that only 10% of students have accessed the mental health supports available to them as SFU students, even though 75% know that they exist. While in the immediate moment these statistics show a worrying disparity between care needs and accessing care, at least we have an idea of where we can improve.

We won’t be completely done with COVID-19 once the virus itself leaves us. We need to start preparing now to deal with its aftermath so that we won’t be scrambling again to keep up with another emergency as it is unfolding.