CMHA urges mental health self-care during COVID-19

Ken Kellar

A local organization is encouraging the public to look after their mental health as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

The Fort Frances branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has been closed to the public since last week, but staff are still hard at work both in the office and remotely in order to take care of their clients and any others who are having trouble with mental health.

“To be perfectly honest, I think all the folks no matter who they are, [or their] social, economic background, everyone’s feeling the same thing,” said CMHA Fort Frances’ Director of Services Sandy Skirten.

“I think everybody’s feeling anxious, everybody’s feeling worried, everybody’s feeling unsettled… When we’re talking to individuals, they’re all telling us the same thing, ‘I would never thought I would live through this or see something like this in my lifetime.'”

Skirten said it’s not unreasonable for people to be struggling with their mental health in light of the nearly unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of which ripple out far wider than just concerns about health.

“It’s a difficult time and people feel cut off from their loved ones,” he explained.

“There’s added stress, the management of the household, the family, school, university… some individuals are losing positions, getting laid off, so there’s financial stress and uncertainty. It’s a great impact to individuals’ mental health and well-being is what we’re seeing, no matter if it’s the clientele that we have provided ongoing service to or individuals that we are meeting, or are calling our office, that are new to our services.”

With the services that CMHA provides remaining available to their clients and the community via phone or email, Skirten noted that some of their clients have been accessing services at a more frequent rate than they have in the past, while another group is taking to the operational change rather well.

“Particularly with our senior population, we’re finding that they’re quite pleased to be able to connect with us over the phone,” Skirten said.

“They don’t want anybody into their home. They don’t want to have to come out and we’re encouraging that, but in saying that, we can all talk about social isolation but at the same time, people need to stay well.”

Skirten noted that there are challenges to living in isolation -whether mandatory or self-imposed- and that people need to be aware of their physical health as it can impact their mental health.

“People need to do things to stay well, and if they don’t start doing that, after a period of isolation, they start to feel -generally speaking- lonely, isolated,, separated from their loved ones, their family, their social support,” he explained.

“I’ve heard the health unit talk about this many times and we speak about it here as well, ‘know the importance of exercising and trying to eat healthy,’ ‘continue to get rest’ and ‘maintain a routine.’

These are times when it’s thrown all of our routines off, to try to do whatever we can to maintain some bit of routine because it helps us individuals feel that we have some control over something and that helps provide the security for us.”

Skirten said some examples of routines that people can stick to while in self-isolation can be as simple as what time they have meals or when they go to bed. Additionally, he noted it’s important to continue to maintain social connections, even if you can’t sit down with a friend at the local coffeeshop.

“We hear about that over and over again on media and a number of things, but it’s essential for so many of our people when they are self isolating that they’re still connecting,” Skirten said.

“Whether they’re standing in their yard and their neighbour’s out in their yard or they’re speaking to someone over the phone or whatever it is that they can do to still feel that they’re a part of society and there’s a bigger picture. I think it’s essential for all of us.”

However, some tools that might initially seem helpful when it comes to socializing and keeping up with the world outside the front door can present a danger of their own, particularly in our current media climate.

“The media and social media is overwhelmed with so much that’s taking place that some individuals can almost get consumed by it and eventually we find that they’re not well, and it certainly doesn’t help them,” Skirten explained.

“So we’re really stressing with individuals that they need to limit their social media connection, their watching the news because it can affect our sleep, it can affect our health, it can affect our stress, our anxiety our eating, so many different aspects.”

Skirten noted that anyone who feels they are struggling with their mental health is encouraged to call the CMHA for support as their staff continue to go above and beyond in their service to the community, especially with COVID-19 measures impacting so much of day-to-day life..

“We have a great team on board with us here at Canadian Mental Health and the staff have been troopers as far as being extremely creative on how we can get out there and provide service and how we could assist individuals in different ways to let them know that they’re not alone,” he said.
“Some of those individuals that are on our caseload that don’t have phones, we’ve been dropping off packages to them with helpful information, a few different items as well that they could find useful and the response has been really positive.”

The bottom line, then, is to be sure to take good care of your mental health, as you would your physical health, especially in high-anxiety times, and doubly so if you are confined to your home.
“I would provide the same recommendations to our staff as I would to any of our clientele, look at ‘what it is that I can do today to support myself and to stay healthy and to stay well,'” Skirten said.
“What that is for me might be different than for you, but take a look at those things because it’s so crucial. The Northwestern Health Unit, we’ve been in contact with them almost daily and they have been exceptional. It has been such a tremendous resource to us because, like many other organizations, this is all new for us as well, and so we’re looking at kind of… instituting stuff with our staff and our clientele as things have been presented to us.