For months now, individuals have been asked to stay home and to give those outside their household a two metre berth to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The unintended consequences of necessary public health measures have meant many are experiencing isolation and amplified mental health challenges. In addition, there are physical and emotional health risks associated with social isolation, and many coping strategies – like leaning on friends and family – are unavailable to those who are struggling.
Dr. Arminee Kazanjian
A project by two faculty members at the School of Population and Public Health (SPPH) aims to address the challenges of isolation, by reviewing existing research and resources in order to identify ways individuals can support their mental health at home. Dr. Arminee Kazanjian, Professor at SPPH, and Dr. Joseph Puyat, Assistant Professor at SPPH and a Scientist at Centre for Health Evaluation & Outcome Sciences (CHEOS), are co-Principal Investigators on the project, which has recently received federal funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Collaborating with Dr. Kazanjian and Dr. Puyat are co-applicants from the Psychiatry Department, Department of Family Practice, and Providence Health Care.
There are multiple facets of the pandemic with the potential to exacerbate mental health challenges, explains Dr. Kazanjian. She notes, “first, the fear of being infected and all that treatment of severe cases would entail and second, the public health policy of social distancing that triggers anxiety, depression for those in lockdown mode, or more severe symptoms for those with an existing mental health condition.”
Dr. Puyat adds that the loss of social support and changes to individuals’ routines are major contributing factors for individuals. “One of the most salient [issues] is the abrupt change in peoples’ lives that resulted from the public health response needed to manage the pandemic. This can be stressful and distressing to many. It also can make many individuals feel isolated and disconnected from their regular sources of social support.”
Dr. Joseph Puyat
The project is not only identifying mental health tools, but also guiding their implementation. Dr. Kazanjian says this could take many forms, such as informing the advice being given by health professionals, shaping community-based programs, or helping to focus funding at different levels of government. “For example,” she explains, “If our synthesis indicated that home-based physical activity, meditation and yoga for those at high risk were important, decision makers who fund health and social care could target funding one or more of these.”
The project holds clear value in the immediate COVID-19 context, but also in the long term by supporting improved mental health, Dr. Puyat explains. “Even after the pandemic, the findings would be helpful to a large number of people who would like to know specific things they can do to maintain their well-being and mental resilience.”
You can read more about the project on the CIHR website.