Mental health concerns ‘sky-high’ as pandemic continues to impact everyday life and coming school year

COVID-19 prevention signs are seen inside St. Marguerite School in New Brighton on Tuesday, August 25, 2020. Schools across Calgary are preparing for classes to resume.

The province is approaching six months into its pandemic response and experts say mental health concerns continue to grow and are expected to worsen as the school year starts.

Dr. Keith Dobson, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Calgary, has looked into the results of three national surveys done in recent weeks to show how the country’s mental health is faring. He said they each confirm the same pattern.

“Rates of anxiety continue to be high but we’re seeing that rates of depression have gone up and, generally speaking, these surveys suggest the rates are about double what they normally would be before COVID-19,” said Dobson.

Some of the main reasons for this kind of spike in anxiety and depression are the unpredictability, uncontrollability and salience of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dobson explained.

“Anxiety tends to be a future-oriented emotion, we worry about things that haven’t yet happened but might occur, whereas depression tends to be a past-oriented emotion. We get depressed about things we think we’ve lost or things we have lost, like lost opportunity, employment or death of loved ones,” said Dobson.

In the early days of the pandemic, reports of anxiety spiked but as the pandemic wears on rates of depression have continued to climb.

In early April, just a few weeks after the initial restrictions on public life and first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province, Dr. Robbie Babins-Wagner,

Calgary Counselling Centre

CEO, spoke with Postmedia about an

anticipated spike in mental health concerns


She understands in the face of trauma, such as the pandemic that has impacted public health, unemployment and the global economy, people will often focus their immediate attention on their basic needs and put their mental health further down the list of priorities. As a result, she expected a surge of applicants for counselling in the summer months.

When she looks at the counselling centre’s referral levels, Babins-Wagner said the number of appointments was sky-high in February because of the tanking oil industry at the time. While pandemic closures were still fresh in Alberta, referrals dropped from March to May, as people turned their attention to food, rent and employment.

As the economy reopened, employers rehired staff and people became more comfortable with the “new normal,” referrals have climbed quickly from June until now, to reach the same sky-high levels seen right before the pandemic.

With Albertans continuing to live through the pandemic, the unknowns shift and people’s anxiety shifts accordingly, Babins-Wagner said.

There was clarity in Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s regular briefings, financial security in the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program and stability in the temporary ban on evictions and late fees, she said. That blanket of support is no longer helping to quell people’s anxiety, according to the data being collected at the Calgary Counselling Centre.

 Robbie Babins-Wagner, chief executive officer of Calgary Counselling Centre.

Early data shows people between the ages of 31 and 54 were more distressed during their first counselling session than other age groups throughout these first several months of the pandemic.

“People are becoming uncertain again, and they’re worried about that. But what I’ve heard, is that a lot of people are anxious about going back to school or sending their children to school,” said Babins-Wagner.

“And people are realizing that we’re in this for the long haul. These are very tough decisions for parents to be making.”

According to Dobson, the impacts on parents’ mental health in sending their children to school during a pandemic are significant.

“Parents are right to be very concerned about their precious children, so it’s not surprising that anxiety continues to be very high,” said Dobson.

“Because the school year is about to start, we see increased rates of anxiety, as parents, teachers and students worry about what will happen and how we can control outbreaks when they occur. It’s important for people to keep their children healthy.”

He’s sure schools are setting up for the school year as best they can, but that may not comfort parents and students.

Cindy Negrello, executive leader of community and clinical mental health at the Canadian Mental Health Association, said parents are very worried about their kids and the scramble to balance their job with their child’s online or in-person education.

“There are all these intricate mechanisms that are causing the extra, undue stress for people,” said Negrello. “People are grieving these everyday things that are coming at us, they’re grieving their losses both big and small.”

Dobson said things might get worse before they get better as more outbreaks happen and more businesses fail, but he says it’s important for people to stay positive in creating fun ways to safely visit with friends and family and supporting others.

“Canadians are coping as best they can but under continuing difficult circumstances,” he said.

Seeking help when it’s needed

It’s important to seek mental health counselling or resources when a person is struggling because a person’s mental health has such a significant impact on them.

Right now, many counsellors are still meeting with clients via video call, which Babins-Wagner said has been successful as clients’ feedback is overall positive.

“The virus will be around for quite some time,” said Babins-Wagner. “Of the things that you’re stressed about, what are the things that you have to get done today and what can be put off for a few weeks? You can only control what’s in front of you right now.”

People should monitor their own symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression and seek professional help if they notice a change, Dobson said.

Mental health resources

Calgary Counselling Centre:

or register by phone at 833-827-4229

Distress Centre 24-hour crisis line:

or call 403-266-4357

Mental Health 24-hour Help Line: call 1-877-303-2642

Addiction 24-hour Help Line: call 1-866-332-2322

Kids Help Phone: Available 24-hours and offers professional counselling, information and referrals and volunteer-led, text-based support to young people by texting CONNECT to 686868.

Canadian Mental Health Association Calgary:

[email protected]



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