A FRIEND I’ll call Dave has been forced by government edicts to be alone with his mental illness for much of the last 16 months. He’s deteriorating.
Diagnosed with clinical depression about 15 years ago, Dave had learned to live with his illness thanks to psychotherapy, medication and what he calls "my toolkit." The tools in his kit included frequent physical exercise, a strong network of friends at his church and regular meetings of a 12-step group.
Soon after COVID-19 hit in March 2020, the stability Dave had achieved was overturned by Manitoba’s provincial restrictions. He lost his job as his employer was forced to follow prohibitions on public gatherings. His church was closed, and 12-step meetings stopped.
Dave lives alone, so the provincial orders to associate in-person only with immediate family meant forced loneliness for many months. Dave’s only contact was, in his words, "the black monster under the bed."
He’s lost weight, and isn’t sleeping well. He’s resumed a habit of substance abuse that, before the pandemic, he was able to keep at bay when he spent evenings drinking coffee with his 12-step friends. He said he once again has thoughts of suicide, although, when I asked, he said he didn’t have a specific suicide plan.
The tally of COVID-19 deaths has been reported daily by the media, but Dave represents another type of COVID-19 casualty — still alive, but devastated by the impact of government restrictions. It’s as if he and a vast number of others are collateral casualties.
Experts are finding a historic wave of mental-health problems resulting from the social isolation that was necessarily forced upon people to stop spread of the virus. They use such terms as "widespread psychological trauma." It can result from a fear of catching the illness, stressful tensions within families forced to isolate together, financial problems owing to unemployment, or the cancellation of recreation activities and social connections that enrich life.
What’s been disappointing during the past 16 months is how little Manitoba political and medical leaders have talked about the mental-health ramifications of the restrictions they impose. They shouldn’t be surprised that extreme social restrictions have extreme negative consequences.
A survey of Canadians by KPMG in March 2021 is typical of the many pandemic surveys that found rising rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal impulses. A total of 54 per cent of Canadians say their mental health is suffering during the pandemic, and 42 per cent believe this impact will be lasting. The mental well-being of women was affected more than men, and the 18-to-24 age demographic was affected more than older Canadians.
The spike in mental-health concerns among young people is confirmed by a Winnipeg resource called the NorWest Community Youth Hub, which has seen requests for counselling increase by 500 per cent. The premise is that young people have it worse because they have stronger needs for the types of in-person social interaction prohibited by government health orders.
There were high hopes last Monday when a press conference was called by Audrey Gordon, Manitoba’s minister of mental health, wellness and recovery. It was reasonable to expect the province was stepping up to take ownership of the mental-health consequences of its pandemic prohibitions.
Specifically, the overworked professionals within Manitoba’s mental-health industry hoped Gordon would finally boost funding to allow faster treatment. Waiting lists are relatively short for people who can afford to pay $120 to $200 per session for private professional help, but for community-based mental health services, patients can wait months to get assessed and then begin treatment.
Instead of funding, Gordon announced a plan to make a plan. She said the province is hiring a consultant to help create a five-year "action plan" for delivering mental-health services in Manitoba. When that study is complete, it will find lots of company on the dusty shelf beside other related studies, such as the Virgo report, the Peachey report and the illicit drug task force report.
Ordering yet another study seems like stalling, a way for the government to avoid spending more on mental health — which, by the way, accounts for only about seven per cent of the Manitoba’s total health-care budget.
To cheap out on mental-health services, however, is really a false saving. Untreated mental illnesses will hinder Manitoba’s economy as workers are incapacitated, as police and jails cope with more criminals, and as hospital emergency rooms treat more patients dealing with panic attacks and overdoses.
Yes, it would cost Manitoba money to treat the pandemic spike in mental illness. But the real bottom line is that it will cost more not to treat it.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.