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As end of COVID-19 comes into focus, are we ready to party yet?

Pandemic promises to leave lasting psychological, emotional scars in B.C.
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When the World Health Organization (WHO) finally proclaims vaccination rates are high enough and infection rates are low enough to declare the COVID-19 pandemic over, and the social fetters come off, society can expect to see a period of “hyper-sociability.”

People, especially young generations, are no doubt ready to party like there’s no tomorrow. But for some people, there may be some lingering mental scars, says Steven Taylor, who literally wrote the book on the psychological impact of worldwide health threats like COVID-19.

His book, The Psychology of Pandemics, came out in 2019, one year before the current global pandemic was declared.

Taylor, a professor of psychiatry and an expert in mood and anxiety disorders at the University of British Columbia, says people are generally resilient and that most will bounce back. But for some, the pandemic may have lingering psychological effects.

Indeed, 40% of Canadians have reported mental health setbacks throughout the pandemic, said Jonny Morris, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s B.C. division. Young people aged 18 to 24 have been hit particularly hard, because their generation has been most affected by hospitality and tourism layoffs and education and campus life upheaval.

Even the most mentally resilient may be suffering from a low-grade depression and irritability from government restrictions on work, play and travel, Taylor said.

He added, however, that lockdowns and other government restrictions are “just a necessary evil because the alternative is widespread death. Most people’s moods will bounce back and improve.”

But people with neurotic tendencies or emotional problems could see their neuroses deepened as a result of the pandemic and may have problems integrating back into work and society at large.

Front-line health-care workers are at especially high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, depression and burnout.

Recent studies suggest increased cases of depression, drug addiction and suicide in other demographic segments, as well. BC Children’s Hospital, for example, reports increased moodiness, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among children and teens during the pandemic.

The Independent Contractors and Business Association says there is a disproportionately high rate of opioid overdose and suicide among construction workers – a trend aggravated by the pandemic, which has prompted the association to launch its Workplace Wellness Program for its members.

In its recent budget, the B.C. government has earmarked $500 million in new funding over three years for mental health and addictions programs. The bulk of the funding, $330 million, is for drug addiction and prevention; $97 million is earmarked for child and youth mental health programming.

People who were hospitalized with severe illness from COVID-19 may suffer from lingering physical and psychological problems, Taylor said. Some may suffer from PTSD or become prone to hypochondria.

With so many people forced to work from home and stay socially isolated for so long, it might be assumed that some people who weren’t otherwise inclined to agoraphobia could develop phobias about venturing out into public places and social settings again. Taylor, however, thinks that may be fairly rare, though he said there could be an increase in other types of neuroses.

“There are people who, pre-COVID, had psychological problems or tendencies,” Taylor said. “Let’s say someone was germ-aversive before the pandemic. This pandemic is a stressor that can amplify obsessive-compulsive tendencies.”

One thing few psychologists seem to be talking about, but which Taylor thinks could become more pervasive as a result of the pandemic, is prolonged grief disorder.

After a loved one dies, most people get over their grief after about one year. Prolonged grief disorder, which affects about 10% of those who lose a loved one, is grief that doesn’t go away and becomes a kind of depression.

Roughly 24,000 Canadians, including more than 1,500 British Columbians, have died in just a little over one year from COVID-19.

In some cases, loved ones could not even be at the bedsides of their dying parents or spouses or view their bodies at traditional funeral services, due to restrictions that were in place last year. That could add to the severity and incidence of prolonged grief disorder.

“Roughly 10,000 Canadians have been affected by this prolonged grief disorder,” Taylor said. “That’s a significant chunk of people.”

Whether it is grief, PTSD, or simply heightened fear of germs and viruses, some people may have a hard time getting back to normal, even when the pandemic is declared over. Employers may need to cut employees suffering from these conditions a bit of slack.

“Employees might have to accommodate them by allowing them to spend more time working from home if they’re not comfortable coming into the office,” Taylor said.

And employers and managers themselves may need to be cut some slack. Many have had to lay people off and have faced heavier workloads and added work stress.

“Managing some of those difficult things like layoffs, recalls, downsizing – all of those things all have an impact upon your mental health and your well-being,” Morris said.

Employers who may be dealing with employees with mental health issues, or have issues themselves, can get help through the new Work Mental Health BC workplace mental health hub. Anyone dealing with mental health issues can also get help by calling the B.C. Mental Health Support Line at 310-6789. •