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Smoky skies weigh on mental health amid pandemic

Citynews 1130 Vancouver

Last Updated Sep 15, 2020 at 4:11 pm PDT

FILE -- The air quality in Metro Vancouver is getting worse due to wildfires in the U.S. (Courtesy Twitter/@Towerden)

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, smoky skies are another stressor that could be weighing on individuals' mental health

One Vancouver psychologist wants people to lean into sadness and count on others for support during difficult times

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) —  It might not feel easy dealing with mental health after months of living with COVID-19 in the community on top of the smoke-filled skies, but a local psychologist says it’s okay to feel overwhelmed.

The Lower Mainland has been under a blanket of smoke coming from the U.S. for several days, prompting ongoing advisories. The area’s air quality was among the worst in the world at one point.

Dealing with the pandemic compounded by the smoke, Christine Korol, a psychologist at the Vancouver Anxiety Centre, says many people might feel like they’re not looking after their mental health right now.

“We put so much pressure on ourselves to always be happy, always be chipper, always be productive. When you see a psychologist, we actually get you to lower the bar a little. Just doing what you have to do to get through and finding those little rays of sunshine, and being kind to yourself when you’re having a harder day.”

She explains feeling sad doesn’t mean someone isn’t coping well.

“Coping doesn’t have to be pretty. You can feel stressed, you can feel sad, you can have all of those feelings and that doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job. You’ll have good days and bad days. So thinking about what your strengths are and who you can count on.”


While exercise is difficult with the smoke, Corey Hirsch, a former Vancouver Canuck and mental health advocate, suggests practising yoga or meditation at home to relieve stress.

“The smoke will clear, we will get outside again, but what you need to do sometimes is lay low for a little bit, take care of you — that’s the biggest thing,” he says. “This will pass, we will get through this, things will get better.”

He stresses the importance of checking in on each other, especially the elderly and people who live alone. Hirsch understands some people may not be able to wait for help and encourages you to seek help elsewhere, if possible.

“If you can’t get into your therapist right away, go see your GP, see if there’s something they can do for you. It’s not therapists’ fault. It’s not them. They’re overwhelmed and overbooked too. As a therapist, you can only see so many people at a time. It’s not like there’s a workday with a therapist. But if you are really in crisis and really struggling, make sure if you do call your therapist, let them know you’re in crisis and they need to get back to you right away and typically if it is an emergency, they will,” explains Hirsch.

Since there have been long wait times as demand is high to seek help from local therapists, Korol says not to be discouraged if an appointment can’t be made right away. She says to keep looking and there is likely someone else out there who can help.

“It’s up to professionals to decide who gets to see who when. We triage, we know how to help people, you don’t have to decide whether you’re ‘bad’ enough to get help,” Korol says. “If you’re feeling concerned enough that you want to reach out, please reach out and we will make sure to get you in as soon as possible or one of our colleagues that might be able to treat you sooner.”

Hirsch notes the high demand for therapy and says there is a need for systematic change.

“There’s just not enough therapists out there for the amount of people struggling with mental health,” he says.

If you or someone you know needs help immediately, call 911 or the B.C. Crisis Centre at 1.800.784.2433 where help is available 24/7. You can alternatively call Crisis Services Canada at 833.456.4566 for help 24/7 or text 45645 from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. PT in English and French.