Conflict and long-term mental health effects may follow pandemic

Faculty member shares tips on coping

Photo of a home office.

People have turned their living spaces into makeshift offices, making it nearly impossible to disconnect. Photo courtesy Mount Royal University Archives and Special Collection.

A Mount Royal expert in family resilience during disasters says we should expect to see an impact on people’s mental health well after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

In numerous research studies over the last five years, Caroline McDonald-Harker, PhD, director of the Centre for Community Disaster Research, has found that poor mental health following a disaster can be serious and long lasting, often persisting for up to 10 years.

“Usually at the initial outset of any catastrophe — whether that’s a disaster or in this case a health pandemic — people are going on adrenaline, and especially with this health pandemic they are getting accustomed to their new way of living. Oftentimes they don’t recognize the signs that they are not doing well until long after the event has ended,” says McDonald-Harker, who is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

Noting that a person’s physical health affects their mental health, McDonald-Harker says it’s important for people to check in with one another, and themselves, every day as the pandemic continues, and to recognize that people will be at different stages of managing the situation in their own lives.

Adults should watch for higher rates of stress and a reduced ability to cope with the situation. Irritability and increased conflict with others are also common signs. Changes in sleep and eating habits should alert people to a problem too, she says.

“In kids what we often see is a change in regular behaviour. Oftentimes it’s regressive behaviour — kids who are potty trained having accidents, nightmares, lack of interest in things that once interested them.”

According to McDonald-Harker, youth are at particular risk.

In her study of youth in Fort McMurray after the 2016 wildfires, she found a large proportion suffering from poor mental health. Nearly half (46 per cent) met the criteria for one or more probable diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and alcohol or substance use disorder.

McDonald-Harker and 2017 psychology alumna Anika Sehgal, who is a research assistant on McDonald-Harker’s projects, have been reviewing similar research to see how it can be applied to today’s situation.

“What we’re seeing right now with this pandemic is there’s been almost nothing that’s been done to prepare people for the mental, social impacts of a pandemic,” explains Sehgal. “When we were drawing from previous research on pandemics like H1N1 or SARS, nothing was this long term and there were never such extreme measures taken, like quarantining and social distancing. These are new.”

In addition to her work as a research assistant with McDonald-Harker, Sehgal is a PhD student in community health sciences at the University of Calgary.

Long-term resources recommended

Photo of a sign showing gratitude for frontline workers.

This sign sent a simple message to front line workers. Photo courtesy Mount Royal University Archives and Special Collection.

McDonald-Harker says funding and other resources to help people after a disaster are usually put in place for up to three years. “But what we have seen from the research is that the need is prolonged. It’s usually at least five years, sometimes up to 10 years.”

As the current pandemic continues to get drawn out, she says there’s a higher risk of people experiencing major mental health issues. This is particularly true for those who are struggling financially, balancing remote work with their children’s homeschooling, and worrying about an uncertain future.

According to McDonald-Harker, the most vulnerable people are those living on their own, elderly people who don’t have as many contacts and may not have access to technology to communicate with people, teenagers especially, and younger children less so. Couples have to watch for increased conflict between them, she adds, which can also include substance abuse and violence.

The more stressors a person is dealing with, she explains, the greater the risk of severe mental health effects.

“My recommendation is always that people think about the impact it is having and that they try to find ways to address it.” It doesn’t have to be formal counselling. McDonald-Harker says that people fare better when they have strong social networks. Eating healthy, getting lots of sleep and exercise and maintaining a routine are helpful.

McDonald-Harker recommends a weekly check-in among family members or others living together. “How are things going? How are you feeling? What were some challenges for you this week and what worked well for you?” She says a frank, open discussion is crucial.

Even young children, she says, are ready for those discussions and can learn resilience through family and social connections, school and community. The skills they learn can help them through the current crisis but also throughout their lives as they face other challenges, she says. For example, her Fort McMurray study found that kids who communicated and talked about their feelings were more resilient, as were those who reached out to others and helped their community during disaster recovery efforts, “because it gave them a sense of control over the situation. Having a positive outlook and seeing the challenges as opportunities for growth — rather than as obstacles in their way — have been found to help children and families cope during community disasters.”

Parents can help their children during the pandemic by not shielding them from the truth, because doing so can break down trust and erode children’s sense of security, she notes. Sehgal agrees and adds that when schools reopen, counselling resources will have to be made available. “We’ve seen in the past that it works.”

McDonald-Harker says now that restrictions are easing, people appear to be falling into one of two camps: those who recognize the threat is still real and will continue to be vigilant, and those who are unconcerned and are resuming normal life as much as possible.

“Respecting other people’s boundaries — those who want to continue to practise physical distancing recommendations versus people who are more relaxed about it is important. Everybody needs to respect other people’s level of comfort with where they are at. Otherwise we will see a lot of conflict moving forward.”

Find out more about the Centre for Community Disaster Research at Mount Royal University. Explore the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the Faculty of Arts.

June 15, 2020 — Melissa Rolfe

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