'A real challenge': Mental health challenges evolving as pandemic passes two-year mark

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, professionals continue to monitor how the two-year hiatus from normality has impacted mental health in people of all ages.

For this year’s Mental Health Week, the Canadian Mental Health Association is highlighting a decline in empathy felt among Canadians since the pandemic began.

A study conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the University of British Columbia show only 13 per cent of Canadians feel empathic towards others, compared to 23 per cent when it started.

“A lot of people are calling it pandemic fatigue, but quite frankly there’s also a bit of a compassion fatigue in there. That’s showing up in people really seeing a decrease in their ability to empathize with others and what they’re going through,” said Phyllis O’Connor, the executive director of the Saskatchewan branch of the CMHA.

“More than ever, I think we need to have that empathy so we can actually support each other as we go through what’s been a really difficult couple of years and probably will be for a bit more.”

The survey also showed that Canadians are almost equally as worried about lost social connections and being separated from their friends and family as they are about getting sick with COVID-19.

O’Connor said it’s important for people to remember to listen non-judgementally if these struggles are vocalized.

“Everybody is doing the best they can,” O’Connor said. “Maybe their anxieties are not yours, it’s not your reality, but it is for them.”

O’Connor said as the province moves away from tight restrictions and lockdowns that were brought on by the pandemic, some people are showing more signs of anxiety in Saskatchewan.

“There’s a significant number of people who are experiencing more anxiety because now they feel like all the constrictions, all the controls are off and there’s a real fear,” she explained.

Dr. Tamara Hinz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, said in her line of work it’s a bit too early to identify trends related to restrictions easing.

“Clinically, at least, obviously there were some pretty significant changes since the start of the pandemic,” Dr. Hinz said. “Things are still probably settling out a little bit as life gets ‘back to normal.’”

She said a group of researchers in Ontario have identified that children’s mental health has been affected by COVID-19 data. She said when hospitalizations and cases go up, children show more signs of struggle.Nwes

“There’s certainly increases in worry and anxiety symptoms, even trauma and stress symptoms. Certainly increases in not only depression, but irritability,” she said. “Those tend to be common ways that children will respond to stress.”

In Saskatchewan, Hinz said the waitlist for children and teenagers seeking treatment has grown as the pandemic progressed.

“It was terrible to start with but has definitely worsened,” she said. “We see that, I think, in all tiers of mental health help.”

She said the inpatient unit, where children would stay if they need intensive mental health support, is full.

“We’re often running at our maximum capacity or we have kids waiting for those beds and we’re running over capacity,” she explained. “That’s been a real challenge.”

She said increased resources would help with the demand - specifically more mental health beds, child psychiatrists and publicly available mental health supports through the health authority and schools.

“Those things would definitely help prevent kids from getting to the point where they need to come see someone like me,” Hinz said.

CTV News has reached out to the Saskatchewan Health Authority for comment on the current mental health pressures in the province but has not yet received a response.

PANDEMIC IMPACT ON EATING DISORDERS

Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Hinz said there has been a “really dramatic increase” in children and adolescents dealing with eating disorders.

“That’s really worrying. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness,” Hinz said.

She said there are different theories that people are looking into as to why this increase is happening, but said it could be linked to control.

“A big part of eating disorders, even outside of a pandemic, is searching for this need for control,” Hinz said. “It makes sense that as more things fall outside of our control, that kids or people in general would be searching for things they can control. Unfortunately that sometimes results in these maladaptive ways of coping.”

Hinz said there is a shortage of eating disorder specific mental health treatments in Saskatchewan.

“In the entire province, we do not have a day-program type service, which would be sort of what the evidence would support,” she said.

She explained current options are “all or nothing” - patients can receive help once every few weeks, or be admitted into hospital for extended periods of time.

“Having some in-the-middle supports where kids could come during the day for more intensive therapy and nutritional support, but still allow them to go home at night, would be better for patients but also would ease some of those pressures on our hospitals too,” Hinz said.

POLITICAL CALLS FOR ACTION

At Question Period, for the 13th time this spring, NDP MLA Doyle Vermette called on the government to take “meaningful action” to address the suicide crisis in Saskatchewan.

On Monday, Vermette, who also serves as the mental health and addictions critic, asked the province when there would be a real plan to save lives.

Everett Hindley, the minister of mental health and addictions, said suicide prevention is a priority for the province.

“We continue to invest significant dollars into the area of suicide prevention across Saskatchewan through our pillars for life suicide prevention plan, which was released in May of 2020,” Hindley said. “There are a number of initiatives that have been funded through that plan, there are other initiatives funded through this ministry, through the ministry of education when it comes to suicide prevention strategies and programs in our schools for young people.”

In response, Vermette said some families who have lost loved ones to suicide do not know what the pillars for life is.

“They wonder what’s going on. They’re asking the government for help. They want to work with the government, the opposition wants to work with the government to come up with a strategy, a plan, legislation that we pass in this house unanimously,” Vermette said.

“If we save one life, then it’s worth the efforts that we put in.”