A psychiatric nurse’s mental health prescription for those living alone during the holidays

Have we lost sight of mental health during the pandemic? 

As a registered psychiatric nurse, I have witnessed first-hand the hardships that people experience over the holidays. 

With a focus on COVID-19, we cannot forget about the importance of mental health — and risks of worsening mental health and of suicide. Physical health and mental health are equally important, yet we often forget about mental health needs. 

The health-care system is overwhelmed, related to an increase of COVID-19 cases. 

In response, Manitoba has extended the public health order — to restrict visitors in private residences — into the new year. These restrictions are in place to help ensure the physical health of Manitobans. 

The restrictions also contribute to an increase in social isolation. But we need to interact with others to survive and thrive. Isolation can, therefore, have devastating impacts on mental health. 

Reduced social contact is a challenge. However, many people have adapted, through use of web-based platforms —such as video conferencing and social media — to increase socialization and reduce loneliness. 

Take the time to reach out if you’re struggling with isolation during the extended restrictions, says Thomson. ‘Maintain social connections to the best of your ability. If you need support, talk to someone.’ (Shutterstock)

A problem with this strategy is the fact that not everyone has the means to communicate electronically. For example, people living in remote communities, those experiencing poverty and older adults may not have the access or ability to communicate on the web.

Electronic means of communication are not an universal approach to reducing the effects of isolation. 

An already-stressful season

Pandemic aside, the holiday season is stressful. The cold weather and reduced daylight can be a challenge. There are also financial pressures associated with this time of the year.

Many do their best to simply survive the holiday season.  But not everyone does, as the risk of suicide often increases during this stressful time. 

The pandemic has added an additional layer of risk, in regards to mental health adversities like anxiety and depression. In addition, Manitoba’s private-residence ban, while well intentioned, may increase the risk of mental illness and suicide among those already experiencing issues with mental health and those living in unsafe settings. 

Having a designated person to visit with is a nice option … but it still leaves single people combating an increase in loneliness during an already isolating time.– Andrea Thompson

Social supports are considered a “protective factor” that help to improve people’s mental health and resilience. Removing these supports can be a tipping point that leads people down paths of depression, crisis, and/or increased risk of suicide.

Living alone has become a mental health challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the recent months, given the private-residence restrictions. Having a designated person to visit with is a nice option for many people, but it still leaves single people combating an increase in loneliness during an already isolating time. 

With the continued ban on private gathering, many single people will be spending the holidays alone this year. 

People who live alone might not have their “designated person” available to visit during a special day, such as Christmas. Imagine the negative impacts that this could have on a person’s health and well-being.

As resources are being allocated to address the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot forget to address the very real mental health crises that people are trying to cope with. Sadly, many people may be experiencing their crisis alone.

Rays of hope

The feeling of hopelessness is associated with a high risk of suicide. A ray of hope is needed to help many survive the holiday season. For many, this ray of hope comes in the form of mental health services and resources. 

Thankfully, many crisis services are available over the phone or online: the Klinic Crisis Line is 1-888-322-3019 (24-hour, toll-free crisis phone line). You can seek out more information through the Canadian Mental Health Association website. 

This does not replace the need for in-person contacts, but does help to address peoples’ needs. 

If you need support, talk to someone — a friend, family member, crisis worker … or other health-care professional.– Andrea Thomson

However, with an already overwhelmed health-care system, we run the risk of pulling mental health resources and staffing in an effort to combat the needs for intensive care provision. 

All Manitobans have a responsibility to work together to ensure that the holidays are safe for people, both physically and mentally. Although we have restrictions placed upon us, there are still things we are free to do each day.

Remember the importance of mental health. Engage in self-care. Spend time outdoors. Exercise and stretch. Eat healthy. Practise mindfulness and patience. Share kindness. 

Maintain social connections to the best of your ability. If you need support, talk to someone — a friend, family member, crisis worker, and/or other health-care professional. 

And, please, follow the provincial guidelines and restrictions.  Stay safe — physically and mentally — this holiday season.

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there:

Contact the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line toll-free at 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170) or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.

Or contact Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text, 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. CT only) | crisisservicescanada.ca 

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.