Mental Illness Awareness Week 2020: How plan sponsors can prepare for the potential echo pandemic of mental illness following COVID-19

With almost seven months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, many Canadians have adjusted to a changed reality. Social distance measures are still in place, and are even becoming more restrictive again as the seeming “second wave” arrives with fall. Without our usual support systems, our sense of loss of normality is compounded and we are more vulnerable to mental illness.

This week, Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 4-10), is an opportunity to recognize and validate the tremendous mental health impact of COVID-19 and prepare to support employees and each other as we navigate through the pandemic and back to normal life.

Unexpected loss may bring grief and trauma

Despite the differences in the impacts felt from COVID-19, what is true for all of us is we did not see this coming. The pandemic has brought an unexpected and universal sense of loss. We have lost our way of living, our personal freedoms, social interactions and many physical contacts. We have experienced loss of work/loss of our business, reduced income, financial insecurity, loss of employment certainty. Some of us have lost loved ones, or lost our health. The impact has been devastating for essential workers, seniors, and families with young children. All of us have lost the life we were living before.

Everyone has a different capacity to deal with change, a different level of resilience. It can be very hard to process and adjust to the sudden and major life changes like those caused by COVID-19. In fact, many of us will react to the change and losses associated with the pandemic like we do with other major losses, by grieving. Each of us has very personal experiences with grief and our reactions will depend on our unique emotional make-up. Grief:

  • impacts our thoughts and behaviours
  • can overwhelm our emotions and impact how we feel physically
  • is impacted by our life events and our previous experiences of loss

An unexpected change of this kind can also cause more severe psychological trauma for some people. Like grief, trauma can be experienced in many different ways depending on current circumstances and past experiences. When a person has experienced trauma in the past, feelings from the earlier trauma may be brought back by the present situation.

Echo pandemic

With loss and grief comes mourning, a typically healing process. In this pandemic, our collective culture has not yet been able to mourn what we have lost during the pandemic. For those that have lost a loved one during the pandemic, it has been particularly difficult to feel a sense of closure, as mourning has often taken place via Zoom or in isolation. There has been no opportunity to mourn together.

Without opportunities to mourn our losses, there will be long-term impacts of grief on the whole population. The likelihood of an echo pandemic of mental illness following COVID-19 is very real. The long-term impacts are expected to include a rising incidence of addictions and substance abuse, depression, and suicide. There may also be co-occurring psychosocial effects such as anxiety, insomnia, relationship breakdown and domestic violence, and widespread psychosomatic preoccupations.

Providing support in the workplace

Now, more than ever, organizations are looking to support their employees. With an already-documented increase of alcohol sales[i] and calls to distress centers[ii] during the pandemic, employers are looking at new and inspired ways to manage their workforces safely. Many are evaluating ways to improve work-life balance, use of office space, and business operations. Others are re-evaluating workplace culture, business goals and objectives, and how to promote positive change within the workplace. And perhaps the most impactful support an employer can provide during this time is to offer employees increased to access to mental health services. Access to Employee/Family Assistance Programs (EAPs), mental health and virtual therapy solutions, and personal days are just a few examples. Now is the time for our collective culture to work through our grief; together we can reduce the echo pandemic effect.

Written by Judy Plotkin, Vice President, Health Solutions at People Corporation.

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