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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

MHCC President and CEO Louise Bradley reflects on the power of resiliency

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is stretching us thin.

Protecting our physical health isn’t without cost to our mental wellness. As social beings, isolation is taxing. As a species that likes to plan, uncertainty is exhausting. As creatures of habit, we don’t cope well when our routines are upended. Add to this financial strain, home schooling and the anxiety of contracting the virus, it’s no wonder an emotional storm is brewing.

A low mood, and feelings of fear, anger, frustration are perfectly understandable responses to an entirely unfamiliar and abnormal situation. It’s important to validate those feelings and name their provenance. Just as sadness and grief are to be expected after a death, right now, we’re all grieving something — big or small.

We don’t have a crystal ball, but lessons learned from previous disasters and epidemics tell us that cumulative stresses and losses will result in significant mental health problems for some. We shouldn’t be ignoring ongoing symptoms that are interfering with sleep, seriously impeding productivity or resulting in substance misuse. Mental health services, already straining at the seams, will need an infusion of funding and injection of innovation to cope with rising demand.

But in this challenging context, it’s more important that ever to draw the careful distinction between the red flags that signal mental illness, and the more general malaise many of us may be feeling. We shouldn’t conflate a reasonable emotional response to our curtailed freedom and constricted social lives with a diagnosis.

Even more importantly, we shouldn’t assume we’re powerless in this situation.

As human beings, we’ve been gifted the capacity to not only overcome obstacles, but to learn and grow from hardships. We’re talking about resiliency — which can be nurtured by individuals and communities.

Just as we can strengthen our physical muscles by eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep, we can also practise flexing and honing our resiliency. Going for a daily walk, phoning a friend, prioritizing gratitude or writing in a journal are healthy ways to manage our emotions. Taking small steps to control our situation can do wonders to improve our perspective. Simple things like making our bed can give us a sense of control, while baking a loaf of bread can give us a sense of purpose.

The outlook we bring to the challenges thrown up by COVID-19 can help predict how well we’ll emerge from the global crisis. If we believe that it’s possible to learn and grow from hardships, that they can teach us lessons in compassion and deepen our relationships, then we can find meaning from our suffering. Surviving an ordeal doesn’t make us resilient.

But tapping into what we’ve learned to be better equipped for the next curve ball does.

While COVID-19 has laid the foundation for many of us to cultivate resilience, it has also exposed the very real gaps and sinkholes that threaten the most vulnerable among us. Self-care only goes so far when schools are closed, long-term care is ravaged by infection, and job losses are widespread.

Practicing resiliency while living in traumatic situations is akin to rebuilding amidst the rubble. We must have access to underpinnings like safe and affordable housing, a living wage, strong community supports, and protection from racism and other forms of discrimination — in addition to robustly funded mental health services. These are the wellsprings from which resiliency can flow.

We have an opportunity to knit together, as a society, to create better safety nets and to innovate more equitable and inclusive policy.

Months of lock-down will have an affect on all of us. But if we’re able to see our experience as one that’s given us pause to reset our priorities, refocus our energy and reframe our worldview, we may emerge, not just as more resilient people, but as a more just and resilient society.

COVID-19 may be stretching us thin, but with resiliency, we can rebound.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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