Are we equipped to address the mental health crises brought on by the virus?
The day before Montreal entered “code-rouge” I found myself running errands with my roommate in preparation for the lockdown. Under the overcast sky of a Wednesday evening, we trekked from one business to another, preparing for the looming uncertainty. From the bakery, to the kosher butcher and fish market — the mundane task of collecting groceries became a mission, not entirely unpleasant. In fact, after a few purchases we developed a system: from outside I monitored our accumulating groceries as my roommate ventured forth into each business.
But, in a quiet moment outside a fish market with a collection of purchased meats as my companion, an unfamiliar feeling crept into my psyche. As I watched the denizens of Montreal go from one place to another, some into stores, others in the metro, a devastating despair intensified.
As the gloomy clouds passed the sky, an anxiety reminiscent of the night before grade school swirled and enveloped me. The anticipation, insecurity, and recognition of a looming drastic change in daily life grew into a miserable and melancholic force with distressing fortitude. A completely foreign anxiety grew in my chest as the world around me contracted into a sea of looming and dystopian doubt.
Yet the anxiety soon shifted into a deep shame. After all, how could I complain? I live with amicable roommates and am financially stable. It felt wrong to grieve for the world before the coronavirus from my fortunate perch outside a grocery store full of food many could no longer afford. I considered my grandmother alone in her New York apartment waiting for a phone call, or the loneliness of those suffering from mental illness or trapped in the brutal cycle of substance abuse. Compared to those who lost jobs, homes, or even loved ones, I hated myself for wallowing in misery.
On a greater scale before COVID-19, suicide plagued Canada. According to Statistics Canada, over the last five years, the second leading cause of death among 20-24-year-olds is suicide — and the trend is increasing. In 2014, 267 Canadians killed themselves, and in 2018, the number increased to 336. Such disturbing figures reflect a national mental-health crisis that existed before the pandemic, and unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is exasperating the crisis.
Last June, the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 25.5 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18-24 had seriously contemplated suicide within the preceding 30 days — an increase from 8 per cent the year prior. Likewise, the study revealed that 24.7 of respondents started or increased abusing substances due to COVID-19.
I refer to the 18-24 age-range because it captures the demographic of the majority of Concordia students. Although the study is from the United States, the data is beyond troubling. The isolation and mental impacts of Montreal entering code-red coupled with the looming winter ought to concern students, faculty, and the administration.
But, the mental health impacts of COVID-19 go far beyond Concordia students. Administrators and professors face similar challenges from this new world dominated by Zoom fatigue and the limitations of distance learning. Nothing could prepare our university for the barrage of health and governmental restrictions. When the computers close at the end of class, who knows what inner turmoil torments a professor or peer?
Although we can count the suicides — assign a number to each tragedy brought on by the virus — there is no system to compare the suffering of living in this new world. Undoubtedly, future historians will quantify certain aspects of our collective experiences such as the number of deaths, suicides, or days under lockdown. Yet comparing the mental toll of one individual to another is impossible.
And in this realization, a sort of comfort emerges as I reflect on that unforgettable eve of the lockdown. Grief and anxiety about the differences between the way we lived and how we operate today is not a shameful reaction. It is possible to remain grateful while remaining cognizant of the issues of our neighbours who face unique challenges. Through this balance, an inspiring possibility of compassion for the other and our own experiences comes into focus.
So, the coronavirus becomes the great equalizer. I yearn for our collective emergence from this crisis with a society built on greater compassion and understanding than before. No matter how distant, the possibility for a silver lining of a better world forged in historic and trying times, could unlock a marvelous societal bond. Losing hope for a brighter future, no matter how tempting, obscures the light of a better tomorrow, a day of a united and shared victory.
Feature graphic by Taylor Reddam