WELLINGTON COUNTY – Just when it seemed we were close to finished this marathon of a pandemic, the Omicron variant has moved the finish line.
And that has left many people feeling exhausted, exasperated, and ready to throw in the towel.
“Omicron has hit us hard physically and even harder mentally,” Helen Fishburn, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington, said in an interview.
“We had confidence and took comfort in our high level of vaccinations. But with Omicron, it feels like the beginning of the race again. It’s no wonder people are exhausted, frustrated and fed up.”
Students were to return to school on Jan. 4; Omicron pushed that back to Jan. 17.
Businesses were opening up; now there are capacity restrictions again and some had to close.
Just back to the office, people are working from home again. Two doses of the vaccine were good; now a booster shot is required as well. Christmas was on; then it was off.
Fishburn said Omicron has forced us all to shift and adjust our behaviour – again – at a time when we’re already mentally and physically drained.
But while it’s understandable to want to punch or kick something, or retreat to the basement and cry, or lose your patience at the grocery store, it’s not actually good to do those things, she said.
Not good for you and not good for anyone else.
“We have to appreciate the things we can control and the things we can’t control,” she said. “Look at life with perspective and gratitude. This wave has hit us hard, but we have also made excellent progress.”
Fishburn said as people regroup once again, it’s okay to lower expectations.
Dinner doesn’t have to be amazing every night, the house can be messy, and weekends can be about sleeping in and going slow.
At the CMHA, staff are adjusting their workloads to accommodate the latest setback and allow themselves a break.
“Instead of asking ‘what are the four things you’ll get done in January?’ we’re choosing two things,” Fishburn said.
It might also be time for a few new tools in the toolbox of resilience, she said.
“A glass of wine and a bubble bath just aren’t cutting it anymore,” she said.
In the absence of a vaccine for mental health, Fishburn said it’s time for some retrospective thinking. And a little self-awareness.
So she recommends a daily check-in with yourself. How are you feeling today?
“Be aware of your thoughts and feelings,” she said. “That internal tiny gauge is so important.”
Look at the things you’re doing that are helpful – and at the things that may be harmful. And then replace the harmful habits.
“A little bit of wine can help you relax but a lot can take you down a path that is much more harmful. Have conscious conversations. Don’t wrestle with this on your own,” Fishburn said.
When it comes to parents helping their kids through the pandemic, the same concepts apply.
“People have been juggling so much. It’s been a tremendous challenge. Be honest about how hard this is. It’s like that for your kids too.”
Allow some flexibility in your children’s day. Yes, they have to attend school and yes, they have to do their homework. But then the screens should be turned off.
“Go outside and have a snowball fight. Bake some cookies, do a craft, play a board game, go for a walk. There are still things we can do that offer comfort.
“By all accounts this has been an intense wave, but it will be short,” Fishburn said. “We can all get through the next four to six weeks.”
For some people the simple fixes are just too simple to be helpful. Whether it’s a temporary feeling of being overwhelmed or more entrenched feelings of anxiety and depression, reach out for help, she said.
The Here 24/7 phone line continues to be busy but call, she said. You’ll find a friendly ear on the other end that will listen and understand and refer you to a counsellor if necessary. You don’t have to be in crisis to call.
“If you don’t address your feelings in helpful ways, they will come out in harmful ways,” Fishburn said. “Hang on to hope. We will experience joy again.”
Joanne Young Evans, executive director of Compass Community Services, echoed Fishburn’s comments.
Compass is also experiencing higher-than-ever call volumes from people seeking counselling.
“The last time we went into a lockdown we were busy, but it was manageable,” Young Evans explained.
“It’s not manageable anymore, and we’re seeing people with much more highly complex, much more challenging issues to deal with.”
According to Young Evans, calls for the organization’s telephone support programs were at 25,000 in 2021, up from 15,000 in 2020. By the end of 2020, she said they were experiencing over 2,000 calls a month, a seven per cent increase from the year prior.
“That’s unprecedented,” she noted.
Even in the summer when their walk-in clinics were open, numbers were rising dramatically, Young Evans said.
She noted most callers are not necessarily people calling in a crisis moment, but they need someone to listen to them, which is what their telephone support systems do.
Asked how the continuous disruption of structure has played into the current mental health crisis, Young Evans said it’s “confusion resulting in frustration.
“When things flip flop, when things are last minute that decisions are last minute, families have to make decisions about work and who’s going to stay home and then the employer has to deal with someone not coming in, or working from home, depending on the job,” she explained.
“When [decisions] are made quickly like that, people are frustrated,” she added. “They have no patience left, they’re at the end of their rope.
“That’s when the anger, the anxiety, the stress, and the end, the burnout. It plays on everybody, so the helpline is getting frayed.”
Common themes Young Evans sees challenging people are financial troubles, family breakdowns, a rise in child and youth mental health issues, and questions of “what’s the point?”
People need to reach out when they’re beginning to struggle, she said, whether it’s for counselling or just reaching out to a friend or someone at work.
“Holding it in is part of the problem,” she explained.
“It’s amazing how much better you feel when you’ve vented, when you’ve talked to somebody, when you’ve gotten it all out.
“And I think that’s one of the reasons that our telephone support system works so well, is because people are able to verbalize everything that they’re feeling.”
Individuals seeking help can call Compass’s TeleConnect Line, which operates seven days a week, 14 hours a day. Phone services are also available at the organization’s distress line, or CMHA’s Here 24/7.
Although they’re virtual at the moment, Young Evans also recommends the organization’s walk-in clinics, which are available Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. These walk-in clinics are located in Fergus, Mount Forest and Guelph.
Young Evans recommended making routine calls to somebody because it’s the connection to others that is so critical.
“The more you withdraw, then the more you start going down rabbit holes and that’s when problems either begin or manifest, depending on the severity,” she emphasized.
Things have never really let up at Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis (WIC) since March 2020 and the concerns remain the same: women in abusive relationships are experiencing more abuse during lockdowns, and, obliged to operate at 50% capacity, there are now fewer spaces in emergency shelters for potentially more women and children leaving violent situations.
“Home is not a safe place for everyone,” said Jensen Williams, WIC’s public educator.
“At the beginning of the pandemic there was a lot of gender-based violence. We know it’s still an issue.”
The agency has pivoted programs to online, but it still offers workshops, counselling, safety planning and can give gift cards and set up legal supports for those who need them.
People move in and out of the emergency shelter so spaces do become available.
In Wellington County there is the Rural Women’s Support program that offers a wide range of services. Women here don’t have to go to Guelph for help.
“It’s always worth calling,” Williams said.
Young Evans, at Compass, said children in these violent situations need extra supports and with schools closed, they need even more help.
“When they’re at home, if they’re a victim of abuse, or they see abuse in the home, then if they don’t have the tools, they don’t have the role modeling and they don’t have the supports, then that cycle continues,” she added.
Mental health resources
Kids Help Phone
– text CONNECT to 686868
Canadian Mental Health Association
– 392 Main Street North, Mount Forest
– 234 St. Patrick Street East, Fergus
Compass Community Services
– Distress Line 1-888-821-3760
– LGBTQ+ Text/Call Support Line 226-669-3760
Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis
– Crisis line: 519-836-5710 or 1-800-265-7233