In the month since the coronavirus has disrupted every aspect of life, people’s focus has largely been on physical health — how to recognize symptoms, the virus’s effect on the body, the measures needed to control its spread and flatten the curve. But Sam Duboc, chair and CEO of the MindBeacon Group, is looking further ahead, preparing for another pandemic rising in lockstep with COVID-19, as each week of social isolation drags into the next.
“Right now, people are dealing with their immediate needs: Do I have enough groceries; how am I going to work from home; how do I apply for government relief programs; how do I keep my kids from hurting each other,” he says. “But we know from other past disasters that after this period of figuring out immediate needs, the anxiety and depression starts to hit, and it hits hard.”
Signs of the virus’s impact on mental health are already emerging. Beacon, the online guided cognitive behavioural therapy resource that Duboc and his team launched 2017, has seen a 15-fold increase in traffic since March 15, and the numbers continue to climb. A recent report from the human resources consulting firm Morneau Shepell showed an unprecedented drop in mental health among working Canadians compared to pre-COVID19 benchmarks. The largest changes were seen in measures of anxiety, helplessness, optimism and isolation, the report says, and are illustrative of a major life disruption.
It was that kind of disruption that prompted Duboc, a serial entrepreneur, to create Beacon, with the aim of increasing access to affordable, effective evidence-based therapy. “I had been stacking up all my problems behind a wall. Then, in 2011, after my brother died, the wall gave way, and I found myself in a fairly significant depression.” he says. As a former board member for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, he knew a lot about the system, but navigating it proved much harder than he thought. “I wasn’t constrained financially, or by knowledge — and yet I still found it hard to get help. I couldn’t stop thinking about how hard it would be for people who didn’t have those advantages.”
Beacon offers customized digital CBT treatments for mild to moderate symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic, post-traumatic stress syndrome and insomnia and one-on-one connection with a therapist. This week, it’s launching Stronger Minds, a free digital program that offers guidance from its team of clinical psychologists to help people deal with the heightened stress caused by the pandemic.
“Social isolation alone can be a big trigger for depression, anxiety and panic,” says Dr. Khush Amaria, a clinical psychologist and senior clinical director at Beacon, underlining the need for evidence-based, pandemic-specific programs. Stronger Minds offers expert Q+As, articles and resilience-building activities, and will add more content in the coming weeks tailored to people’s changing concerns.
Both Duboc and Dr. Amaria also have a few golden rules they suggest (and that they themselves follow) to that can help set a foundation for maintaining mental health through a crisis. Here are their five tips on reducing the stress response.
“Everyone is feeling anxious right now,” Duboc says. “Any depression or anxiety you might feel is a natural response to the situation we are in, and it’s fine to feel that way. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s the natural response.”
While it’s important to stay informed and on top of COVID-19 developments, checking the news too frequently can lead to feeling overwhelmed, which might trigger undue stress and anxiety. “Most of CBT is focused around getting people to understand the impact of their feelings and thoughts on their behaviours,” Dr. Amaria says. “The important thing is to pay attention to the impact all this information is having on you, and set some limits.”
This might sound like a luxury given the circumstances, but Dr. Amaria says it’s essential, and can be defined in a hundred different ways. “We’re in a state of chronic stress response right now,” she says. “You have to find a way, no matter how small, to release that stress. Maybe that’s a controlled breathing exercise, or carving out 30 minutes to have a bath.” The important thing is to schedule it, like you would any other activity, and stick to it. Duboc’s been using this strategy as well. “I force a daily walk on myself and make sure I read something that’s not business or disaster-related every day,” he says.
This is not business as usual, Dr. Amaria says. “So, set reasonable standards for yourself, and throw any judgment out the door.” She’s done that herself at home over the past three weeks. “My kids have spent way more time on screens than usual,” she says. “But I made a conscious choice to say, we’re not in a place to deal with this right now, so the rules need to change.”
It’s clear now that dealing with COVID-19 will be a marathon, not a sprint. So, it’s important to keep in mind that, as things change, any mental health strategies you’re using may need to change as well. “There is no perfect, predictable course through this,” Dr. Amaria says. “It’s so important to have check-ins with yourself — think about some of the skills and strengths that have worked well so far, what new challenges are presenting themselves, and try to take a problem-solving approach. For instance, if you start feeling lonely, and you weren’t feeling that way at the beginning, what’s changed? Have you stopped reaching out to family or friends?”
Part of this process, she adds, is to identify any distorted thinking that might be playing a part. “Did you start thinking people were getting sick of you asking for a video call? It’s so important to challenge those assumptions and beliefs, because they will surface.”