Setting routines, picking up hobbies key to managing mental health during COVID-19, experts say

TORONTO — With experts warning of an “echo pandemic” of mental illness coming in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, mental health experts say what Canadians do with their time in self-isolation is key when navigating feelings of anxiety and depression.

Amidst daily government briefings, headlines profiling grim outcomes, and the general unease of wondering when, if ever, life will feel normal again, experts say the best anyone can do is take their emotions day by day.

“Try to focus on what you can do. What is in your control day by day,” Toronto-based clinical psychologist Dr. Vivien Lee told by phone Friday.

“We all have to worry about long term, absolutely, but if we focused mostly on that, then we’re just going to spiral into this narrative of ‘what if.’”

Lee says how Canadians manage their mental health while self-isolating will go a long way in navigating life after the pandemic. That starts with accepting the current reality of life while physical distancing and finding logical solutions to keep life as normal as possible.

“There’s a lot of things you can’t do. You can’t go to the gym, so what can you do for some physical activity? What options are there to get groceries or food? Who can you ask to deliver? Can you problem solve going into every day,” Lee asks.

Just like the virus, struggles with mental health affect people of all ages, education, income levels, and cultures.

An estimated one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem or illness every year, with eight per cent of adults experiencing major depression at some time in their lives.

But a pandemic presents an entirely new mental health landscape to navigate.

Research has shown that there is a “mental aftershock” that takes place after world-altering events, such as the SARS outbreak or the September 11 terror attacks, causing an increase in anxiety and depression.

“With the health concerns coming out of COVID-19, the economic consequences, people’s financial challenges, and the economic challenges our country will be facing… there will be a need for mental health services in the coming weeks and months,” Joe Blomeley, executive vice president of public sector and mental health at Green Shield Canada, told by phone Friday.

In partnership with Beacon guided digital therapy, Green Shield Canada (GSC) has sponsored a free digital program to help Canadians navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

The program, called Stronger Minds, takes the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy and makes it available to the masses, according to Blomeley.

“[The program] focuses on recognizing and changing unhelpful thinking patterns, building resiliency and developing personal coping strategies, he said.

“You’ll get videos and quick reads from top-tier mental health experts, activities and workbooks to help gain resilience throughout the crisis, and then there will be a mechanism to feed questions into Beacon. Every couple of days you’ll have an ask an expert video in response to the questions.”

Blomeley says the program, available for free to all Canadians starting April 6, was kick-started thanks to growing calls for more digital mental health services.


Despite ongoing concerns and calls for mental health support, some research suggests Canadians are finding ways to remain positive through the pandemic.

A study by Anstice, a research and marketing communications firm in Calgary, found that 67 per cent of Canadians say the basics of life — health, family, and friends — as the most important things in the face of the pandemic.

Dr. Mark Szabo, director of insights and engagement for Anstice, says of the 800-people survey, the majority said they valued meaning over materialism and had re-evaluated their spending habits to include a budget for donating to charity.

“It’s a very, very different picture than we might have looked at a few months ago,” Szabo told by phone Friday.

“It seems to be turning consumerism on its head a little bit… more giving to charities, more generosity to random strangers. Number one is being compassionate.”

When it comes to navigating everyday life in an uncertain time, Lee says creating a new daily routine and sticking to it is especially important. That means waking up around the same time each day — regardless of what your work life looks like — and maintaining regular meal times.

For those experiencing anxiety around the unprecedented level of news coverage surrounding the pandemic, the psychologist recommends limiting media consumption throughout the day and designating certain times to digest that information.

“Communicate ahead of time about what alone time and self-care time will look like,” she said. “Even if we’re living in very small spaces, everyone should get some alone time each day.”

For those living alone, Lee stresses the importance of finding new ways to be social.

“A lot of us when we’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed, we tend to confine, which is natural. But if we do it too much, too long, then we’re really wallowing in our stress and anxiety rather than connecting with others,” she said.

“No, we can’t go to a party and hug people. But we are lucky to have technology to try to keep us connected. Try supportive Facebook groups, for example, or video chats.”

If you find yourself feeling anxious, Lee recommends focus activities, such as colouring or building puzzles, to keep your mind occupied.

“Some people maybe they have some old hobbies that they’ve got lost touch with. Maybe they have an old guitar or maybe they still love baking,” she said. “Maybe try to rediscover or get into new hobbies or learning new language with all these free apps.”​