By Josh Welsh
In a time of uncertainty and great difficulty, one of the major impacts COVID-19 has had on young people is with their mental wellbeing.
Chris Jian, a 23-year-old law clerk at a Toronto law firm, is one of those affected.
“I had just started my job in December. I had new coworkers and I was on workplace probation. It was also a very busy law firm with over 200 clients,” Jian says. “I was lucky to have a fellow colleague who was working directly with that lawyer.”
After that colleague quit before the lockdown last spring, Jian became the only full-time staffer at the agency.
“Everyone started working from home in March. By June, I was the only staff member working on a 200-file practice.”
That is when his anxiety started kicking in.
“The anxiety attacks went from being weekly or biweekly to almost daily, at that point. It was like a daily occurrence for me,” Jian says.
“I would stop breathing for two or three minutes at a time, just staring at my computer screen and getting angry, giving it the middle finger and not being able to focus. My body would just shut down from all the stress.”
Stress also affects FP, a 20-year-old student studying psychology at the University of Ottawa. Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.
“My mom is not super open with my relationship so when I moved in with my boyfriend, I was going to bed and I couldn’t sleep and I usually have no issues sleeping,” she says. “I think that was the first sign of me telling myself, ‘okay, I’m getting stressed.’”
FP manages her stress by keeping busy. But the increase in lockdowns have been frustrating, especially when she’s restricted from doing almost anything.
“I work a lot and since my job is on hold, I can’t go to the job at all. Even if you want to do something, it’s super complicated. You’re not supposed to be out. I feel like the main problem was probably the restriction of seeing my friends because, even though I can FaceTime them, it’s not the same vibe at all than actually seeing people and sitting at a patio.”
According to CAMH, there are currently more than 6.7 million people living with a mental health condition in Canada. More than 28 per cent of people aged 20-29 experience a mental illness each year. Of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety, 49 per cent have never gone to see a doctor about their mental health. Once depression is recognized, help can make a difference for 80 per cent of people who are affected.
Dr. Roger McIntyre, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto, says the second wave of the pandemic has caused mental health cases across the country to skyrocket.
“The first wave that happened overnight was acute. This is now going on for nine months or so and continues to go on. We’re seeing very high rates of depression, anxiety, extremely high rates of people drinking more alcohol, using more drugs. And unfortunately, we are hearing reports of increases in domestic violence.”
A survey published by CAMH in December showed 24 per cent of Canadians over 18 experienced moderate to severe anxiety, 26 per cent engaged in binge drinking, 23 per cent felt lonely and 22 per cent felt depressed.
Judith Friedland, professor emerita in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at University of Toronto says that although the pandemic has brought many new anxieties and stresses, it’s important to remember previous mental health challenges for students haven’t disappeared either.
“We’re already starting from a place not knowing that post-secondary students are fairly vulnerable,” she says. “They’ve got a lot of issues that they’re addressing just in their normal growth of becoming adults and COVID-19 has exacerbated all of that.”
Friedland says that while mental health affects everyone, those in post-secondary education are usually affected the most because of how rigorous it can be.
“Everybody has some bouts of depression. Everybody has anxiety. Whether it’s a genetic issue component, whether it’s something that’s within their families or whatever it is, it’s usually controllable and it’s there but when the situation they’re in changes, then a lot of that can come out and be deemed more serious. So, the post-secondary schooling situation is very much more demanding.”
When the lockdowns were put in place last year, they forced Canadians to adapt to a “new normal”, something that she says has introduced a different way of living.
“We’ve had to turn to more of an online culture. There’s never been so much online music, concerts, plays and theater stuff from great companies, Netflix and everything else. These are all things that most of us didn’t have time to do before and we’re now having another opportunity, in a way, to look at something different.”
Jian handles his anxiety in solitude and through constant hydration, both figuratively and spiritually.
“I know that not everyone is religious or spiritual, but for me, I found prayer helps,” he says. “I forgot that I was a religious person throughout my whole life because the church is closed from the pandemic. So, I’ve taken some time to basically return to what I did before the pandemic, which is a lot more meditation. The meditation helps with maintaining self control, which is the main element here.”
The pandemic has given FP more time to think of things she wouldn’t have otherwise taken time for. Things like reflecting on her dad, who passed away five years ago. She says working out and seeing a therapist has helped her cope with her stresses during the pandemic.
If there’s a piece of advice Jian can offer to those struggling with anxiety, it’s realizing those around us also need help.
“Find a family member or a loved one to confide in at this time,” he says. “As you confide in them, allow them to confide in you. Use the mutual hardship to strengthen each other. If there’s one thing we can take away from this pandemic, it’s the opportunity to be there for each other and build each other up.”
Friedland agrees. “It’s really important for peers to be helping each other because, in many ways, that’s a little more effective in making it more normalized.”
Friedland also says that while the pandemic has had more negative than positive outcomes, it will have only made us stronger.
“We’ll also look back and have a sense of having a period of adversity in our life, something we didn’t ask for. But it came upon us. We dealt with it and we came out the other end. Somewhere in our psyche is going to be a new little resilience we didn’t know we had before.”