"I'm Okay"
/ Author: CLAC Staff
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"I'm Okay"

An encounter with a worker on the front lines of the pandemic highlights the need for greater emphasis on the mental health of Canadians

By Rob Cleveland

IN NOVEMBER 2020, I was visiting a small town in Ontario to meet with some healthcare members in the parking lot of their long term care (LTC) home. I spoke with many people that day. But one young woman left an indelible impression on me.

Sara had graduated from a personal support worker (PSW) program in 2019 and had since found gainful employment in the LTC sector. She wasn’t even a year into her first “real job,” as she referred to it, before the pandemic hit. And it hit hard.

At the time, Canada’s COVID-19 case count had skyrocketed past 300,000. In the time since, it has soared beyond the one-million mark, and the numbers continue to grow.

That day outside her workplace, Sara stood before me, trying to sort through competing emotions as she mulled over my mundane questions. 

“How are you doing during the pandemic?” I asked. “How’s it affecting you and your family?”

“How am I doing? . . .” she parroted, trailing off into her thoughts. But it was obvious to me that she was struggling. 

As I gently nudged her, Sara instinctively deflected the conversation away from herself. She started talking about COVID-19, the home where she worked, and the stress that the virus generated, even when there weren’t active cases in her workplace or community.

“Everyone is doing their best,” she said. She talked about the toll the virus is taking on her colleagues, how the residents missed their families dearly, how management is doing its best to help staff and residents cope, and how “everyone is on edge because of the stress.” 

I nodded in agreement but said nothing.

“I talk with them almost every day while providing care,” she continued. “I really get to know some of these residents. . . .”

She paused. I could sense her mentally retreating once again, back to safety. 

“But we’ll just keep working at it,” she finished. It was clear that she was reinforcing an internal wall that was holding back a flood of emotions. 

I pushed a little bit more. 

“Sara,” I asked, “how are you doing?”

The dam finally broke. Tears of frustration poured out, soaking her blue medical mask. 

We made eye contact. This was real, genuine emotion that she had likely been sitting on for some time. 

THROUGH THE TEARS, HER VOICE ebbing and flowing as she desperately tried to compose herself, she shared more with me.

“Two of my longest-term residents caught COVID-19 and died,” she cried. “They’re just gone! They weren’t with their family members. They weren’t with me or my coworkers. They died alone in a hospital.”

It all seemed like too much for her. The burden she was carrying must have felt immense. 

“I’m so sorry, Sara,” I replied. She dried her eyes with her coat sleeve. “I didn’t sign up for this!” she said.

That’s hard to hear. Imagine how it must feel to live it.

We talked for a while longer. I made feeble attempts to console her and offer reassurance that she would get through this in time. 

I handed her my business card and an employee and family assistance program pamphlet. I told her that she could call me if she needed to vent, but that perhaps she should also talk to a mental health professional. 

“No, no,” she insisted. “I’m okay. Really.” 

We made eye contact again. I wanted to believe her.

I have heard that refrain so many times. “I’m okay.” I have said it too, when it was painfully obvious to those around me that I was not. 

We desperately want to be okay because then we don’t have to ask for help. We tell ourselves that asking for help is a sign of weakness. We believe that by not doing so we are rational, strong, independently minded, and unencumbered by trivial emotions. 

It means not having to pull back the veil and reveal our true selves. It means that the façade we have built, replete with grand trappings and ornate features, remains standing despite its inferior, ever-crumbling foundation. It means not having to feel judged or shamed.

FRIENDS, I OFFER THIS STORY because our front-line members in healthcare can empathize with Sara’s situation. They know better than most the toll this pandemic has taken on the lives of ordinary Canadians. They understand and appreciate how isolated this virus can make people feel.

In fact, while Sara and I spoke, the government of Canada was conducting a survey, laying bare some truths about the pandemic’s negative consequences on our health. The survey found that one in five adult Canadians showed signs of at least one of three mental disorders: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and posttraumatic stress injury (PTSI).

Add in another stressor, such as troubled finances, domestic violence, a lack of childcare, or substance abuse, and the situation can quickly unravel. It becomes untenable. Unliveable.

The pandemic is forcing us to reckon with these matters, one way or another. We can do better. We must.

I can tell you from experience that there are not enough mental health professionals available. Need a psychiatrist for medication and a follow-up appointment to see how you respond? Here in Ontario, that will be three to six months. 

At up to $200 per session, the cost of quality care with qualified professionals like psychologists and psychotherapists is prohibitive to much of the population. And these traumas—whether they’re historical or a recent experience like Sara’s—aren’t going to be solved in just a few sessions. It takes a great deal of money and time to repair deep, open wounds.

I WANT TO LIVE IN A SOCIETY that gives room for people to heal, one that treats these wounded warriors like the battle-hardened people they are, struggling day in and day out just to eke out an existence. I want governments of all stripes to double-down and reinvest in the necessary infrastructure to help our citizenry. Everyone in Canada should have access to quality care, regardless of the injury. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling, reach out and ask for help. Depression, anxiety, PTSI, and a host of other clinically identifiable mental health issues are real, and their impact goes far beyond the person who is suffering. 

We need to continue to talk about mental health until real change comes about. For someone like Sara, that will be the point where she can walk into a hospital or clinic and get the treatment she needs until she is better. We do it for cancer patients. Why not mental health patients?

 


5 Places to Turn to for Help 

If you need assistance or information regarding your mental health, there are immediate and free resources that you can lean on.

1. Call 911 if you are in immediate danger. Call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 (24/7) or text 45645 (4 p.m. to 12 a.m. ET).

2. CLAC has a number of resources and interactive tools available. Go to myCLAC.ca and click My Health and Wellness.

3. Stronger Minds features videos and quick reads from mental health experts, activities to help you gain resilience, and ask-an-expert videos in response to questions. Visit mindbeacon.com/strongerminds-home

4. WellCan offers resources to help Canadians develop coping strategies and build resilience to help deal with uncertainty, mental health, and substance abuse issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit wellcan.ca.

5. Wellness Together Canada provides online resources, tools, apps, and connections to trained volunteers and qualified mental health professionals. Visit wellnesstogether.ca.
If you need assistance or information regarding your mental health, there are immediate and free resources that you can lean on.


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