As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on into its seventh month, loneliness, fear, and uncertainty are common feelings for people to experience in 2020. Each day brings new cases and deaths, job losses, potential government-ordered restrictions, and parents struggling to balance working from home while homeschooling their children.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus targets and attacks a person’s body, but it also causes a very real negative consequence to the mental health of others, regardless of whether or not they become infected.
It’s called “COVID fatigue.”
Dr. Jocelyn Lymburner, Kwantlen Polytechnic University psychology instructor and clinical psychologist at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic, describes COVID fatigue as the changes to our lifestyles resulting from COVID and the possible tiredness and mental health issues stemming from those changes. This affects a range of things from our work and social lives to shopping habits and how we follow precautionary measures.
“Since March, we’ve been living with what people like to refer to as ‘the new normal’ and at some point in there, we all have wanted to get back to ‘the old normal,’” she says.
Dr. Ingrid Söchting is a psychology professor and Director of the UBC Psychology Clinic. She says her clinic has experienced an increase in referrals with people experiencing COVID-related mental illnesses.
“This pandemic is, unfortunately, a recipe for pretty serious anxiety and depression,” she says.
Söchting adds that with COVID fatigue, “Someone may not be particularly anxious about catching the disease or passing it onto others, but they are becoming depressed about what it may mean for their personal life and their future.”
According to an Angus Reid Institute survey, 19 per cent of respondents say that their mental health is either poor or very poor, and “those who suffer from both loneliness and social isolation has increased from 23 per cent of the population to 33 per cent”
While Lymburner is unsure how many people seek treatment for mental health issues directly attributed to COVID at her clinic, she says the virus is an underlying factor in all of her therapy sessions.
The early months of the pandemic had “flatten the curve” slogans trending on social media, sounds of chants and pot banging for front line workers flooding the streets each night, and optimism that this crisis would end before summer.
“There will be some questions that cannot be answered anytime soon,” says Söchting, but that “becoming a bit more open to uncertainty” can help when dealing with COVID fatigue.
Söchting and Lymburner emphasize the importance of self-care. This includes sleep schedules, eating healthy, exercising, exploring nature, and even learning new hobbies. The completion of small day-to-day tasks or learning new skills can positively affect one’s well-being. It’s also a period for people to examine their needs and values and for self-growth.
The social nature of society is disappearing as some individuals are unable to physically touch or talk to each other from close proximity. Staying at home and going months without visiting loved ones can make people feel as if they are completely alone.
“We know that the biggest predictor of psychological health is social support,” Lymburner says. “The very nature of this virus that we’re dealing with is that we’re reducing people’s levels of social support.”
Therefore, maintaining social contacts, whether in a small social bubble or digitally, is crucial. Lymburner adds that checking in on loved ones and neighbours and doing “acts of kindness” positively affect mental health. While the pandemic has kept people apart, Söchting says it has reaffirmed bonds with friends and family.
With the pandemic likely lasting well into 2021, Lymburner says people must have “kindness and patience for one another.”
“But what is important also for people is to remind themselves that there is hope,” says Söchting.