FUREY: ‘People are really spiralling’ — mental health experts sound off on lockdown harms

Author of the article:Anthony FureyPublishing date:Jan 25, 2021 

Experts have mental health concerns due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Getty Images

The pandemic and its lockdowns are causing an unprecedented mental health crisis that is having serious ramifications that will be felt for years to come, according to experts on the ground who are speaking out about their concerns.

“I have never seen anything like it in my 20 years,” says Michelle Sorenson, a clinical psychologist who sees patients in Ottawa. “People are really spiralling after almost a year of traumatic stress.

Sorenson points out that the small things that kept her patients going in the summer and fall — going to yoga or the gym, meeting a friend for coffee, seeing parents at school drop-off — have now been taken away from them. “Without a sense of community, mental health is at an all-time crisis point,” she says.

Other professionals in Ontario are seeing similar societal problems unfold.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the severity of a broad range of symptoms experienced by my patients,” says Dr. Mark Berber, a psychiatrist at Markham Stouffville Hospital and professor at University of Toronto and Queen’s University.

“Students struggle with online learning and many have dropped out of school completely.Depressed and anxious patients grieve over the loss of their businesses … Many patients have contemplated suicide,” he says.

Berber points to one example of an older patient whose despair led him to request medically assisted dying despite suffering from no serious health challenges. Berber refers to that case as “the canary in the coal mine” and “a predictor of things to come.

Dr. Tess Clifford, who is the director of the Psychology Clinic at Queen’s University, describes what’s happening as a shadow mental health pandemic.

“I haven’t seen many people who are extremely anxious about getting sick, especially since the summer,” says Clifford, who sees patients in the Kingston area, which has a relatively low rate of COVID-19 cases. “Most of the people I’m seeing are more significantly impacted by the lockdowns, and especially this most recent one was a bit of a shock for some people here.”

Clifford says she is particularly concerned with the impacts of chronic stress on children and youth. “We’ve seen higher rates of referrals, and many children and youth with no history of mental health concerns who have developed significant concerns,” Clifford notes.

The issues she’s seen arising in children and youth include separation anxiety, panic attacks and more aggressive behaviour as well as physiological symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, tics and sleep disruption.

When it comes to solutions, Clifford is calling for government and experts to adopt a “child-centred framework” when making decisions about restrictions and reopenings.

“If we’re living in an environment that is causing us harm, no amount of therapy or strategies will be sufficient to thrive,” says Clifford. “The most effective way to prevent further mental health impacts is to not implement policies and restrictions that cause harm (even if unintended).”

Sorenson likewise thinks policymakers need to focus more on these harms. “I am astonished at how I will see an excellent letter from a group of doctors imploring the government to send children back to school, founded in reason and data, and hardly anyone even publishes it,” she says.

For Berber, the closing off of places like gyms and outdoor recreation — as well as the closure of playgrounds last spring — make it difficult for patients to get the mental health benefits of exercising.

“My patients accepted the initial lockdown, appreciating the need to learn about the novel virus,” he says. “This acceptance of the early lockdown has been replaced with skepticism, with many believing that the ongoing lockdown measures are unreasonable and draconian.”

It’s become a common refrain to “listen to the experts,” but to date, Canadian officials have done a poor job of including the voices of the many experts speaking out on the serious harms being caused by the restrictions and closures across the country.

afurey@postmedia.com

Mental health experts sound off on lockdown harms | Toronto Sun

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