Former Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil attends a news conference in Halifax, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS

Former Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil attends a news conference in Halifax, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS

East Coasters proud of COVID record, but some worry over heavy cost to mental health

Pandemic has forced some care providers to be creative

HALIFAX — Atlantic Canada’s political leaders have touted the region as an example to the world after the novel coronavirus was repeatedly beaten back by a population that dutifully followed orders to isolate and physically distance.

Yet, a year after the first cases, the side-effects of declining mental health and damaged livelihoods remain costs that some psychologists and entrepreneurs say haven’t been fully recognized. And as residents reflect on the year past, their reactions vary from pride to sadness, as they recall both lives saved and the lasting damage many have endured.

“We’ve learned through this that Atlantic Canadians tend to respect authority and government a lot more than other regions,” said Donald Savoie, author of multiple books on the East Coast’s economy and politics.

In a recent interview, the public administration scholar tied low COVID-19 case numbers to the demographics of an older and more rural population that’s obedient to authority. “Maritimers simply took public health directives as gospel,” he said, referring to orders to shutter churches and businesses, and — as former Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil put it — “Stay the blazes home.”

Savoie recalled former prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2002 comment that the region possessed a “defeatist” culture due to dependence on the public sector; during the pandemic, Savoie said, the supposed weakness became a virtue.

David Chaundy, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, says that while the region’s economy suffered, “when we look at economic indicators for 2020, Atlantic Canada has fared slightly better than Canada on several indicators.” For example, he cites the East Coast decline in employment of 4.1 per cent, compared to an average of 5.1 per cent across the country.

Still, for Halifax chef Laura MacLeod, the low case counts don’t capture the struggles she experienced.

Her 78-year-old father narrowly survived the disease in a long-term care home, and she recognizes that public health directives were necessary. However, her cafe The Old Apothecary — where residents used to mingle amid the aromas of coffee and fresh pastries — is now shuttered, defeated by the emptying of the city’s downtown.

Having retrained from interior design to become a chef, the 50-year-old’s dreams started to derail after the first cases in Nova Scotia were announced in mid-March last year. “It was a gut check. Everything was going so well, and to have it all fall apart so quickly was heartbreaking,” she said in an interview.

“If you said anything against the heavy regulation, you’re pounced on,” she added. “So instead, everyone would internalize everything, and people would say ‘I’m fine.’ But they’re not fine.” Since her cafe’s closure, she’s heard of the growing despair of many restaurant owners, and she wants health advocates to know “people are in trouble, mentally.”

Mental health treatment in Nova Scotia already lagged behind rising demand, and then the pandemic led the province to prescribe “isolation and avoidance,” according to Simon Sherry, a professor in Dalhousie University’s department of psychology.

He points to Canadian Institute for Health Information data that indicates that while overall spending on mental illnesses nationally rose 25 per cent between 2009 and 2018, in Nova Scotia, it went up just 12 per cent in the same period.

“The province is experiencing a public health disaster masquerading as a success story,” said Sherry, adding that more attention should be paid to the consequences.

“We’re separating workers from employment in workplaces, children from school and sports and recreation, family from each other, and this is massively compromising the mental health of Nova Scotians,” he said in an interview.

Food and shelter insecurity often made the situation more acute across the region.

Joshua Smee of Food First NL, which assists food banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, said a survey of 60 food supply organizations last April indicated a 52 per cent increase in the number of clients compared with a year earlier.

Herbert Emberley, a 49-year-old single father in St. John’s, N.L., said in an interview his job opportunities evaporated and he was worried about having enough food for him and his nine-year-old daughter. “When the first lockdowns came, I felt really freaked out,” recalled the former cook, who has been unable to work in his old profession due to back problems.

His blood pressure and anxiety were rising as he scraped by on welfare. He depended on deliveries from a food bank and sought help from Stella’s Circle, a St. John’s program that assists citizens with housing, counselling and employment services.

The program provided him with relaxation training to calm his mind, and a “transitions to work” program that has him once again applying for jobs.

“Newfoundlanders are outgoing and friendly, and to be isolated from everybody is not what we’re programmed to do,” he said.

The pandemic has forced some care providers to be creative. Matthew White, program leader for the acute care crisis support in Nova Scotia Health’s central zone, said resources were shifted from traditional in-person counselling to online and telephone support to meet demands for help.

Calls to the mental health crisis line were up by more than a third in the fall compared to the same period a year earlier, as clients shifted to phones, White said.

Despite the pressures, he said he and his staff were impressed by the inner strength of many clients. “They’ve had challenges in their lives, but they’re here, reaching out for support, and their resilience is unbelievable,” he said.

Still, MacLeod, the Halifax chef, worries about the future. She is hoping that, as subsidies and assistance dry up, her colleagues in the restaurant business don’t meet a fate similar to hers. And in St. John’s, Emberley calls for a tempering of rhetoric about the Atlantic success story as people pick up the pieces.

“You have to do what you got to do, because you have to prevent people passing away,” he said. “But we should have helped everybody else more with their mental health.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2021.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Red Deer Rebels will have three new assistant coaches when the WHL regular season starts on Friday. Brad Flynn (left), will be on the bench alongside fellow assistant Ryan Colville (right) head coach Brent Sutter (middle). (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Sutter steps down as Red Deer Rebels head coach

Red Deer Rebels Owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter has stepped… Continue reading

Premier Jason Kenney announced $200 million more money that will benefit seniors living in continuing care on Wednesday. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta’s in-school rapid screening test program expanding

Alberta’s in-school rapid screening test program will expand to as many as… Continue reading

Parents and students learned Tuesday what the coming school year will look like. It's pretty much back to business as usual, said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. School precautions include frequent cleaning, keeping students in the same groups where possible, planning the school day to allow for physical distancing and staying home when sick. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta’s largest school board says no to United Conservative draft school curriculum

CALGARY — Alberta’s largest school board says it will not use the… Continue reading

Cowboy Kicks, originally scheduled for May 5, will now take place Sept. 18. (Contributed photo)
Westerner Park’s Cowboy Kicks fundraiser moved to Sept. 18

A major fundraiser for Westerner Park and the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sport… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels forward Josh Tarzwell tries to tip a point shot past Lethbridge Hurricanes goalie Car Tetachuk in WHL action Friday night at the Centrium. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
Red Deer Rebels struggles continue, drop seventh straight to Hurricanes

Hurricanes score three power-play goals in 6-3 win

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan is among those who have signed an open letter criticizing the government’s return to stricter health measures. (Advocate file photo).
Updated: Kenney tells UCP caucus COVID-19 dissent OK, breaking health rules means expulsion

15 MLAs released letter on Wednesday critical of new health restrictions

Owner of 4 Point Taekwondo Kevin Mejia holds a board as organizer and martial artist Kevin Olsen breaks it in Edmonton on Friday, April 9, 2021. One hundred martial artists from around the world, will be breaking a board for an event called "Break for a Breakthrough." The idea is for martial artists to unite and re-engage with the arts because they may have drifted away or lost enthusiasm as a result of the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Break for a Breakthrough: Canadian hosts international martial arts demonstration

EDMONTON — Whether he’s breaking a wooden board, a clay tile, cement… Continue reading

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Ediburgh, left, look on as Manitoba Beaver peaks out of his box at a July 14, 1970 ceremony in which Hudson's Bay Company observed an old tradition. The death of Prince Philip has reminded a small French village in Manitoban about how a royal visit half a century ago made the community the centre of frog racing in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Prince Philip’s frog-jumping legacy in a Manitoba French community

WINNIPEG — The death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, has reminded… Continue reading

The Yukon provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Monday July 6, 2020. Yukon residents will head to the polls on Monday for Canada's fourth election held during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Yukon residents set to vote in fourth election held in Canada during pandemic

WHITEHORSE — Yukon residents will head to the polls on Monday for… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
O’Toole, former PM Harper speak on ‘build back right’ for pandemic recovery

OTTAWA — Top Tory leaders of the past and present will speak… Continue reading

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Tuesday, March 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Liberals set to debate universal basic income, pharmacare, OAS hike

OTTAWA — Grassroots Liberals have taken up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call… Continue reading

Students enter the Pierre Laporte Secondary School as secondary school students return to class full time during the COVID-19 pandemic in Montreal, Monday, March 29, 2021. Pandemic-fuelled frustration has some teens expressing anger in unhealthy ways after a year of missed social connections that would typically help them mature and regulate their emotions, says a psychiatrist calling for more education on coping skills as part of the school curriculum. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Teach students coping skills to deal with anger, including during pandemic: doctor

Pandemic-fuelled frustration has some teens expressing anger in unhealthy ways after a… Continue reading

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
No winning ticket for Friday’s $25 million Lotto Max jackpot

TORONTO — No winning ticket was sold for the $25 million jackpot… Continue reading

jobs - T - 3-6-2020
Finding a job: 3 job search truisms you need to accept

A job search has many moving parts; your mindset is the most… Continue reading

Most Read