As the pandemic drags on and numbers rise, mental health service providers are being kept busy. Photo: Engin Akyurt

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Suzanne Bartlett’s approach to getting through this third wave and latest lockdown is to try and take a “one day at a time” approach.

Some days, the Tantallon area resident feels energized and finds herself cooking, baking cookies and gardening with her daughter.

Other days she wakes up feeling anxious for no reason at all and wishes she could just stay in bed and watch Netflix.

“Everything just feels a little uncertain and you’re on edge, almost. It’s just hard to predict anything,” Bartlett said in an interview.

“I feel like everything is in this constant state of upheaval and things are unknown and it’s almost impossible to plan for anything. I just need to take things one day at a time or I do start to feel overwhelmed.”

She regularly finds reasons to be optimistic and is thankful to be living in Nova Scotia where until recently, “life was somewhat normal” compared to other places in Canada and the world.

“We know what we need to do and we’ve seen it be effective. This is temporary and we know that we’re doing the right thing and we are on track to getting back to a good place,” she said of the latest lockdown.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I just feel like I need to focus on what I can control and do my best and take the time to do something positive each day.”

While some people are like Bartlett, trudging through much of the uncertainty with a “one day at a time” attitude, mental health service providers are being kept busy as others struggle to cope with the many stresses and uncertainties brought about by the pandemic.

‘Dramatic increase’ in crisis line calls

With each pandemic wave in the province, Nova Scotia Health (NSH) has noted a dramatic spike in calls to its crisis line. That line allows for “in the moment” mental health support.

Registered psychologist (PhD) and Nova Scotia Health advanced practice lead Jeff Bailey. Photo: Contributed

“We’ve really seen that pattern where the onset of COVID was associated with an increase in crisis calls, and that really seems to have been trending upwards throughout the pandemic with a bit of a spike (in April) with this new wave,” registered psychologist and NSH advanced practice lead Jeff Bailey said in an interview.

“Our crisis line phone calls have increased quite dramatically.”

Comparing the month of April, 2019 to April of 2020, NSH noted a 33% increase in the number of people calling the crisis line. That jumped another 12% last month (to 2,305 calls) compared to last April (2,064 calls).

While there’s been a consistent spike in calls to the crisis line, each pandemic wave has also led to a temporary decrease in the number of referrals for more formal, traditional forms of therapy. That decrease typically lasts for two weeks after the wave hits.

“Then there’s kind of a slight increase and a plateauing back to kind of the rates that we had seen before the wave had onset,” Bailey explained.

Although he can only speculate, Bailey believes the decrease in referrals and corresponding increase in crisis line calls may have something to do with people trying to balance multiple priorities — things like finances, physical health, working from home, child care, and schooling.

“At times, mental health can fall to the back burner for some folks. Then when you find yourself in that state of crisis, you’re really looking for that very quick kind of response on the phone,” he said.

“I think what we may be seeing is folks who aren’t prioritizing their mental health right now but reaching out when it gets to that point where they’re really, really struggling.”

Bailey said much of what they’re hearing from people reaching out for help revolves around concerns about the uncertainty of the virus, their inability to engage with family and friends, and financial issues.

He said people who have struggled with depression, anxiety or substance abuse in the past are now struggling “that little bit more.”

“As well, we’re seeing some folks coming through the door who have never really struggled with mental health concerns who are really starting to struggle now with these new limitations, these new barriers to living the life that they want to live,” he said.

Although there isn’t any overarching diagnosis or presentation they’re encountering, Bailey said COVID-19 is certainly a key part of their conversations.

“They’re recognizing that ‘I’ve struggled with mental health, but this COVID has made it really, really tough,’” he said. “Or they’re saying ‘I’ve never struggled before, but this last year has been really tough on me. I’m really struggling with this uncertainty.’”

Bailey encourages all Nova Scotians to engage in things they can still do within the limits of public health restrictions. He said it’s important we continue doing things that provide a sense of mastery, accomplishment, or pleasure.

“Don’t lose connections with loved ones, even though it may be through a screen. Make those connections a priority. Reach out to those who you love,” he said.

“And if you can get a little bit of physical activity in there, a walk around the block, a little jog. Not neglecting your physical health can have huge benefits for your mental health moving forward.”

Bailey also urged anyone struggling with their mental health to reach out for help.

“I think that there may be a sense that because of the pandemic, mental health services are a bit more difficult to access,” he said. “But those services are there, we’re open and running, and we’re just a phone call away.”

‘A reasonable amount of distress out there’

This week is national mental health week. To mark the 70th anniversary of the annual event, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) on Monday released the results of a national monitoring survey examining the emotional impact of the pandemic.

The third round of data from the ‘Assessing the Impacts of COVID-19 on Mental Health’ was conducted in partnership with University of British Columbia. The survey found that 55% of adults in Nova Scotia report feeling negative emotions as a result of the pandemic.

Asked about their emotional responses to COVID-19, the most common responses from Nova Scotians included anxious or worried, stressed, lonely or isolated, and sad.

The survey also found that 83% of Atlantic Canadians responded that they were “coping very/fairly well” with stress related to the pandemic. That particular data wasn’t broken down by province, only by region.

The latest survey data was collected in late January, and CMHA Nova Scotia interim executive director and former practicing psychologist Patricia Murray speculates those numbers are likely higher now because since January the Atlantic region saw increases in COVID-19 cases.

Canadian Mental Health Association Nova Scotia interim executive director and former practicing psychologist Patricia Murray. Photo: Contributed

“That (survey) was before this latest issue in Nova Scotia (with rising case numbers and lockdowns),” Murray said in an interview. “So I would suspect that some of these numbers will be going up. There is a reasonable amount of distress out there.”

Murray said many of the people reaching out to her organization are dealing with general anxiety, worry, grief, and loss. Some have lost loved ones in other parts of the country and are struggling because they were unable to be present at a family member’s death bed, or to attend typical rituals like funerals or celebrations of life.

“It would be quite typical to feel worried and anxious to a certain degree because there’s so much unknown out there,” Murray said.

“But if you’re feeling a level of distress or anxiety and feelings of sadness or depression that seem to be getting worse, that you can’t seem to get out of, that is interfering with your day to day functioning, it’s getting harder to get out of bed, it’s hard to concentrate, it’s hard to get your work done or looking after your children or whatever, it may be time to seek professional help.”

This year’s mental health week theme encourages Canadians to understand their emotions. Murray said people are often scared to name difficult feelings like sadness, anger, loneliness and worry.

She said no one has escaped this pandemic unscathed, and feeling somewhat anxious and concerned in the midst of so much uncertainty is to be expected.

“Talk to people about that and make sure you’re taking care of yourself. All of those things will be helpful in the end. This has gone on a long time, longer than anyone expected,” Murray said.

“It is taxing. And, you know, you’ll think ‘Will I ever feel better?’ but I like to think we’re coming to the end of this. You’ve gotten through this far. Carry on. And if you need further assistance, it’s out there.”

Murray said while there’s been a greater demand for CMHA Nova Scotia services throughout the pandemic, they’ve also been fortunate to receive a 30% increase in donations. She believes people are supporting their work because there’s growing recognition about the importance of mental health.

“Don’t take your mental health for granted. It’s like any other part of your health so take care of yourself,” Murray said.

“That means a healthy work-life balance, things like eating healthy and sleeping and the importance of keeping connections with friends and family and all of those things that make you feel better. Do not be afraid to talk about it.”

‘Staggering increase’ for Kids Help Phone

Last year, Kids Help Phone experienced what Emily Cardwell described as a “staggering increase” in the number of people using their free, 24/7 support services and accessing their online resources.

In 2019 Kids Help Phone heard from 1.9 million young people looking for counselling services, information and referrals. In 2020, that number jumped to 4.6 million.

Cardwell, the development officer for Kids Help Phone in Eastern Canada, said if the first four months of 2021 are any indication, they’re on track to hit 5.1 million contacts from young people by the end of this year.

In 2020, Kids Help Phone in Nova Scotia logged more than 65,000 interactions with young people reaching out for help. That was a 76% increase from 2019 numbers for the province.

Cardwell said demand for services tends to spike when regions are experiencing COVID-19 lockdowns.

Emily Cardwell, development officer for Kids Help Phone in Eastern Canada. Photo: Contributed

“In Nova Scotia in particular, youth are continuing to reach out to us for support around relationship issues and depression, which are two topics that have coincided heavily with the pandemic of course when it comes to isolation and those kinds of things,” she said.

“We’re hearing a lot of things about concern around seeing family and friends again. And with the third wave, they’re continuing to reach out to us.”

Throughout the first year of the pandemic, youth turned to Kids Help Phone with concerns about isolation, grief, anxiety, depression, eating, and body image.

There were also increased reports of abuse. In 2020, the non-profit facilitated 4,200 active rescues across the country with young people who were in unsafe situations or in distress.

“In addition to those conversations — because we did see increases in all those conversations within Nova Scotia youth — young people in Nova Scotia connected with us by phone about relationships with their friends and sexual violence and abuse more than any other province or territory in the country,” Cardwell said.

Not just for kids

Last year, Kids Help Phone also began offering an adult crisis text line as part of the Wellness Together Canada initiative. That mental wellness portal was launched by the federal government on April 15, 2020.

Kids Help Phone continues to offer that adult crisis text service. Last year, 17.4% of the organization’s Nova Scotia texting conversations were from adults accessing that line.

“We were hearing from a lot of adults who simply were feeling overwhelmed and maybe that they didn’t have anywhere else to turn,” Cardwell said.

“There certainly was a need for it obviously when we were hearing from so many people who were upfront saying ‘I’m not a kid, but I didn’t know where else to go,’ so we were really pleased to be able to offer that.”

Resources for Nova Scotians seeking help:

Nova Scotia Health breaks down mental health and addictions services by location and type here

The province’s mental health and addictions team takes calls from people struggling with mental health or addiction concerns Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 1-855-922-1122

The provincial mental health and addictions crisis line is also available 24/7 at 1-888-429-8167

The Canadian Mental Health Association-Nova Scotia Division website offers a range of mental health related resources, including a wellness hub that offers strategies for “coping during uncertain times.”

CMHA also offers recovery-focused programs and services for people of all ages and for families.

Kids Help Phone offers help for Canadians of all ages. Children and youth seeking mental health support can get more information about texting, calling or online chats by visiting

Adults looking for support through Kids Help Phone can text WELLNESS to 741741 and chat with a volunteer crisis responder 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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