It has now been two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since the number of cases is declining and restrictions are lessening, many of us eagerly anticipate a return to "normal" life. Although, it is important to understand that "normal" will likely be different from what it was before the pandemic. Despite improvements, there is no end in sight for COVID-19 as of yet. Nearly 70% of Canadians have received at least one vaccination dose, with about 25% vaccinated fully. However, almost all provinces and territories still have some restrictions and public health measures in place. In Alberta, the government is planning to lift all restrictions on July 1, 2021. As we navigate the transition, there will be many unknowns and uncertainties. One thing for sure, COVID-19 will continue to have a lasting impact on us for a significant amount of time post-pandemic.
How has COVID-19 affected mental health?
COVID-19 has had a drastic negative impact on mental health, increasing the prevalence and severity of mental health issues and disorders. Multiple aspects of the pandemic can affect our mental health, both directly and indirectly. In many cases, these effects can be severe and persist long after the pandemic is over.
Health Measures and Restrictions One primary source of mental health issues is quarantine, social distancing and other restrictions. Health measures like these increase loneliness and isolation. Symptoms that result can include emotional distress, irritability, insomnia, depression, anxiety, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, substance abuse, and behavioural changes. Based on past research, these symptoms from quarantine can last for months up to three years.
COVID-19 Infection Contracting a critical illness like COVID-19 can be traumatic. As a result, patients may experience anxiety, depression and PTSD symptoms. Delirium can occur in patients who are hospitalized. Delirium is a state of mental disturbance, confusion, reduced awareness and attention. Long-term psychiatric effects of COVID-19 are currently not known. Research indicates that it may be comparable to the coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Patients who recovered from SARS reported experiencing impairment to attention, concentration, memory, and mental processing a year after recovery.
Unemployment and Financial Insecurity COVID-19 has additionally adversely affected the economy, possibly triggering the deepest global recession in decades. Many have lost their jobs or businesses and accumulated debt over this time. In times of economic recession and unemployment, psychological distress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide are at an increased risk.
Stigma Several populations have experience stigma from others since the onset of the pandemic. This includes healthcare providers, front-line workers, survivors of COVID-19 and members of the Asian community. Due to the stigma surround COVID 19, these individuals can suffer from harassment, discrimination, isolation and acts of violence. These experiences can cause emotional disturbances, anxiety, and depression.
How can you best prepare for a post-pandemic world?
Identify and acknowledge your feelings.
You may feel a range of emotions about things “returning to normal.”, It can be exciting, and at the same time, you may feel worried, nervous, or fearful. Living through a global pandemic is difficult and can be traumatic. Even if you have not experienced trauma firsthand, chances are you have witnessed it around you. It is important to acknowledge and validate your experiences and emotions. Take some time to reflect on how the pandemic has affected you and what your needs are going forward.
Be patient with yourself.
In the same way that it took time to adjust to life with the pandemic, the same can be said afterward. It will take some time to get used to things, including being around other people without a mask or going to a large social gathering for the first time. There will be significant adjustments to your personal life, work-life, and the lives of those around you.
What will work or school look like post-pandemic?
Will you be going back in person full-time?
Will you continue to be remote?
Will it be a hybrid of both?
What kind of plan or safety measures are in place at your workplace or school?
Be patient and take care of yourself to the best of your abilities during this time. Practice self-care, eat well, exercise and get enough sleep.
Get vaccinated and continue to follow public health measures. To best protect yourself from COVID-19 infection, vaccination is recommended. This is the best way to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you. Vaccination can decrease anxiety and empower you to return to the life you love. Further, it may allow you to participate more easily. Some major events may restrict attendees to those who are fully vaccinated. In Canada, travel restrictions are expected to be lessened for fully vaccinated people, effective July 5, 2021. Continue to follow public health measures even after being vaccinated. Be mindful that not everyone has received their vaccination, and some are ineligible for vaccination. There are still many studies undergoing around vaccinations including:
Can you still become infected after being vaccinated?
What is the risk of contracting a variant of the virus?
Can vaccinated individuals be carriers of the disease?
What is the effectiveness of vaccination in people who are immunocompromised?
Explore your comfort zone and establish boundaries. It may be difficult to fully embrace post-pandemic life right away, and that’s okay.
Even as the rules change, you can still decline to attend activities or situations that make you feel uncomfortable. These are very personal decisions,
Things to consider include:
How many people do I want to be around? Do I just want to be around people I know? What about larger groups such as concerts or festivals?
For what amount of time do I want to spend around in close contact with other people?
Does it make a difference if it’s indoors or outdoors?
Do I want to continue to wear a mask after the mandatory mandate has been lifted?
Do I want to travel after restrictions are lifted? Do I want to limit my travel to within the country? Am I okay with international travel?
Recognize that other people in your life may have different boundaries and that we need to respect them.
Ask for help if you need it.
Remember that you are not alone. Lean into your support system. Talk to a friend or family member about how you are feeling. You may find comfort in knowing that others may be feeling similarly. If you are finding it especially difficult to cope or just want a bit extra support, consider seeking out the help of mental health professional.
References and Additional Resources
Science Brief: Background Rationale and Evidence for Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention The Global Economic Outlook During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Changed World | World Bank
Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. Lancet (London, England), 395(10227), 912–920. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30460-8
Kathirvel N. (2020). Post COVID-19 pandemic mental health challenges. Asian journal of psychiatry, 53, 102430. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102430