COVID 19: Not the new normal but a chance to change our response to mental illness

Rising mental health concerns in COVID19

As the COVID19 pandemic continues, many people are experiencing a level of uncertainty, which they are unfamiliar with. As they shelter in place, they may struggle without some of their once familiar routines and social contacts; they may feel a lack of control, a heightened sense of anxiety, trauma, powerlessness, and grief. Social media has exploded with strategies to cope with these unfamiliar circumstances and what is increasingly being referred to as a “new normal.”

Lived experiences of mental illness

For people with lived experience of mental illness facing uncertainty like this may be all too familiar. Although every person living with a mental illness has their own unique experience, they share challenges in relation to navigating uncertain environments and systems. Many people with lived experience of mental illness work for years to develop coping strategies as well as find the support they need in their homes, communities, and formal systems of care. In some ways, you might say that people living with mental illness have learned to live with a level of comfort around uncertainty and fear. More importantly, in the process of recovery, people living with mental illness develop critical resources for themselves through formal systems and within their communities.

Let’s learn from the recovery experts

We have a lot to learn from people with lived experience of mental illness. Through the process of recovery, people with lived experience of mental illness develop a language to communicate what they are experiencing with others around them. When people talk about experiences of mental illness, others around them learn to understand and support them. This also creates a space where mental illness is not taboo, but a part of everyday life. Coping with symptoms becomes “normal” and not something that should be avoided or stigmatized. In this respect, COVID19 may actually normalize some aspects of mental illness, specifically anxiety and fear. It may challenge us all to be more empathetic, flexible and accepting and change our response to mental health problems.

Not the new normal but a chance for change

Due to COVID 19, some mental health service providers are increasingly relying on technological solutions to support mental health needs. Now that is the safest and most appropriate option, but it is not an optimal solution in the longer term. The social and physical distancing associated with COVID19 is not our “new normal.” In fact, COVID19 is a chance to change our collective response to many challenges in the world around us. It is a chance to develop greater empathy toward others and reduce stigma. It is a chance to reach out (now at a social distance) to develop personal supports and community resources. It is a chance to reflect on how we make resources such as therapy more accessible financially and geographically. It is a chance to develop a broader base of peer supports to augment professional helpers work. It is a chance to ensure access to good information. It is a chance to exercise our rights and ask for help at all levels—in our workplace and communities and from our government. Our collective experience and response to mental health problems depends on our ability to have these conversations now and include recovery experts.


Dr. Rachel Herron is the Canada Research Chair in Rural and Remote Mental Health at Brandon University

Candice Waddell is a Registered Psychiatric Nurse and a Professor in the Department of Psychiatric Nursing at Brandon University

Richard Whitfield is a Mental Health Advocate

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