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COVID stressors result in a rise of depression, anxiety for locals

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Tom and Charlotte are typical grandparents and they both volunteer in the Prescott community. They own a nice home, a dog, and have great jobs, yet they always feel out of step with their peers. Tom and Charlotte suffer from depression and anxiety, and COVID has posed some special problems for them.

According to research prepared by Canadian Association for Mental Health (CAMH) over the last five years, some form of mental illness will affect as many as one in five Canadians during their lifetime. It may be time limited or prolonged, but one in five will experience the fear and confusion these illnesses bring. That number may be even higher now due to the effect of COVID-19.

Recently local health-care professionals are seeing a rise in that number due to the special circumstances resulting from coronavirus. Whether this will be an ongoing situation has yet to be determined; Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam has been televised saying it is too soon to tell if the mental impact of the pandemic will be long lasting or more short term as conditions change. There hasn't been time yet to compile enough accurate data on the mental health aspect of COVID.

Tom and Charlotte say the virus has definitely taken its own unique toll on them. They have asked to keep their last name anonymous due to the stigma which still surrounds mental illness. They have both spoken candidly one-on-one and to support groups about their personal battles, but say unfortunately society still looks at people with these illnesses "in a different way". That fact, and because they have professional adult children in this community, makes them wary of "going public". But both wanted to reach out and help anyone who is struggling to maintain their mental health right now.

"Some days there is just no energy there," says Tom, speaking about his 35-year battle with depression. "Usually I am a pretty energetic guy. I love my job and most of the time I'm eager to go to work, but I still have bouts (of depression) every few years. First I slowly seem to lose interest in things, then comes sadness and negativity, and in a month or six weeks, I slide to the point where I don't want to get dressed, or get out of bed."

COVID came along while Tom was in the middle of a depressive episode and definitely made it worse.

"At first it didn't really have an impact; I was in hospital and secluded, just trying to get back on my feet. About halfway through my treatment they closed the hospital to visitors and Charlotte couldn't come in anymore. On a good day I just felt lonely; on a bad day I felt abandoned by everyone," he says.

Then, slowly, I did get better and came out to a different world than it was six weeks earlier when I was admitted." he says. "There was no where I could go, couldn't visit with my neighbours, nothing on the news but statistics of illness and deaths.

"Those are hard things to handle when you are supposed to be accepting the world is a good place and you deserve to live," says Tom.

COVID had a different effect on Charlotte's anxiety disorder.

"I have worried almost constantly for the last two and a half months," she says. "I worry about my kids and grandkids the most. What would we do if they got it, or God forbid, died of it?" she says. "And the worry just gets in a loop in the brain - it makes you tired but keeps you awake at night. You wonder if the people your kids work with are 'safe' and who they are going to run into at the grocery store. Your worries are on a treadmill of their own and they never run out of energy."

Charlotte says she has worn a mask and gloves everywhere she goes since the beginning. She is upset with the people who laugh it off and aren't paying attention. She is still working and volunteering, but that anxiety is always there - subdued sometimes but always present. Medications help, but they also slow her down. She calls it a "trade off" which most people with a mental illness have to put up with.

"I battle this kind of worry all the time, and yes, COVID has definitely made it worse - but it also shows me I am strong enough to deal with it - that's the payoff and it keeps me going."

Locally, several doctors and health-care workers say calls for appointments for mental health concerns are on the rise. Roseanne Hardy, a nurse practitioner working out of a Brockville clinic, says most questions are about how "normal" it is to worry about the pandemic and it's outcome. She says that some people have even been forthright about not wanting to live anymore if the world of isolation and distancing has to go on much longer.

"More people, both men and women, are calling in and asking their doctors about how much worry is normal and how to cope with it. Some of them are asking about the symptoms of depression and we urge them to talk to someone - call the Mental Health Crisis Line if you have any doubts. You don't have to be pre-diagnosed with a mental illness - you can always call and share your feelings and fears," she says.

If you do reach a place where you feel you just can't cope anymore - because of depressed mood or a racing mind - she reminds people there are other sources of help, one being a walk-in clinic at 25 Front Avenue in Brockville. This site is open to Prescott and surrounding areas as well as Brockville residents.

The delivery of services at Front Avenue used to take weeks to months to access. A referral had to be made by your doctor and your name went on a waiting list. That was changed in 2019, when it became a rapid-access clinic, which means you can simply walk in, fill out an intake form and go through a short interview before being assigned a counsellor. Usually you can be seen within an hour or two.

The therapists at this clinic are now working remotely, but can be reached for a telephone appointment by leaving a message. Someone will call you back whether you need to talk just once or if you need several sessions to get the answers you need. These are certified counsellors who can help you develop coping strategies or help you get in touch with other supports in the community.

Life for people like Tom and Charlotte is fraught with daily triggers for both depression and anxiety, but they say life is still filled with good things too - you just have to look for them and try to concentrate on the positive. But if that is too difficult to do, they also urge everyone to reach out.

"You never know what lies ahead," says Tom. "One thing I have learned is that the professionals are there for a reason and there is no reason to hesitate to ask for help. If I had a heart condition, I would take heart medication and talk to a specialist. Why should this be any different?"

Hardy says it isn't. Counsellors are not there to judge and are bound by confidentiality. Information you share will not be passed to anyone else unless you sign a form allowing them to speak to your doctor, spouse or someone else.

If the pandemic has created a situation that has you questioning your mental health, or if it has made your existing condition worse, options for help are available. Most family doctors are taking calls and seeing patients or doing telephone consultations. Lanark, Leeds and Grenville Addictions and Mental Health Rapid Access Clinic can be reached at 613-342-2262. The local Mental Health Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 613-345-4600. If you feel overwhelmed or are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, going to the Emergency Department at Brockville General Hospital is also an option. If you can't get there by yourself, call 911.

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