Always thinking. Always spinning. Did I get too close? Who has touched that? Should I wash my hands? I miss my grandchildren. It’s hard to breathe. Am I sick? Should I go to work? I’m so tired.
At age 61, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barb Douglas is facing depression and anxiety for the first time in her life.
She’s physically cut off from her children and grandchildren. Her grocery store job is a source of endless stressors, from coping with scared and frustrated customers to wondering if the pen she’s using to fill out orders is tainted with the virus.
“If someone isn’t feeling anxious with COVID, then you’re not breathing,” she said. “Everything’s involved. Your life, your finances, your children.”
“I don’t want to make my family sick. I’m at the grocery store all the time. How many people am I in contact with? I’m not willing to take that chance. I haven’t seen my grandkids since April.
As the deadly COVID-19 pandemic drags on, attacking hope, cementing fear and isolating us from each other, Windsor-Essex is in the grip of a mounting mental health crisis.
For thousands of people with previously diagnosed issues, the wounds are deepening. For many, like Douglas, the struggles are new.
Family Services Windsor-Essex first started seeing more people reaching out for help in May, but since the current lockdown was announced Dec. 11, the numbers have increased dramatically.
There has been a 41-per-cent increase in community counselling clients and a 35-per-cent increase in clients for the organization’s Employee Assistance Program.
The agency served 7,708 unique clients between May and December. As of Tuesday, they had served 3,004 people since the latest lockdown was ordered in mid-December.
The Canadian Mental Health Association, Windsor-Essex County, has also seen a spike in calls for help. From April 2019, to January 2020, the local organization fielded 10,806 calls to the Community Crisis Line.
From April 2020 to January 2021 — with two weeks still left to go this month — they had received 12,578 calls.
Kim Willis, CMHA’s director of communications and mental health promotion, said there has also been a 25-per-cent increase in suicidal ideation or attempts among clients.
People are also increasingly turning to drugs and alcohol to cope, she said.
“So it’s really a scary situation,” said Willis. “There are so many articles that say we have this COVID pandemic. But there’s also a mental health echo pandemic happening that we need to be equally concerned about.”
Many of the people now reaching out for help also didn’t have a previous diagnosis or contact with mental health agencies.
“The need has never been greater,” said Willis. “For a lot of us there is so much uncertainty. This is new. We’ve never experienced these constraints on our lives and not being able to connect with people, whether it’s your friends or family.
“So we’re also seeing a lot of people reaching out who have not typically reached out for help before.”
The physical and social isolation, increased with the current stay-at-home order, can create dread, said Beth Ternovan with Family Services Windsor-Essex.
“When we are not able to engage with others it can cause us to feel a sense of greater fear,” she said. “When there is a greater fear about the future, that is when anxiety starts to set in.
“One of the protective factors against depression is our ability to engage with others. When we are missing that opportunity to engage with others because of a necessity to shelter in place, a necessity to isolate, it can worsen symptoms of depression.”
“If you look at other pandemics historically, there is a correlation between the unemployment rate and the suicide rate,” said Willis. “For every one per cent increase in unemployment, that can translate into a one per cent increase in suicides as well.”
Ternovan said the worry and anxiety can infiltrate all aspects of a person’s life.
“We have seen concerns across many domains … financially, in terms of parenting, in terms of couple or marital relationships, in terms of individual anxiety and depression,” she said. “So across lots of domains that relate to our overall wellbeing.”
The stay-at-home order and other government orders have also sparked protests by people frustrated by financial and emotional effects.
Currie Soulliere, who calls the government protocols “harmful and illegal Covid measures,” has been one of Windsor’s most vocal opponents.
“Opportunities to return to work look bleak,” she said. “Emotional well-being is plummeting, especially among the youth, which no one should find surprising, as our kids have been grounded indefinitely for no good reason.
“Children are no longer free to develop social skills; they’re afraid they’ll kill their loved ones by sharing affection with them.”
Willis and Ternovan both stressed that people should ask for help if they’re struggling.
Douglas reached out to her doctor after realizing she was having trouble. About a week ago, she started on an anti-anxiety medication.
For her, normally a “high-energy and happy” person, it started with shortness of breath, fatigue and gloom.
The anxiety starts when she walks in the door.
“When I go to work and hit the punch clock, I’ve got to wonder, did someone wipe that before me,” said Douglas.
“It’s all the time. And you try not to think about it. But then you think, that’s when people get in trouble, not thinking about it.”
She realized her worries were bleeding in at work as customers unloaded their own anxieties and she worried about lineups, keeping her distance, touching debit machines, washing her hands, getting sick and getting others sick. The days felt longer. She felt overwhelmed. Worried. Tired.
“When you’ve never had that, you feel it,” she said. “You think, what’s wrong? Am I just tired today? But when it’s every day you know it’s something else.”
If you’re struggling, you can call Family Services at 519-966-5010, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s 24-hour crisis line at 519-973-4435 or the 24/7 COVID support line at 1-877-451-1055.