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Letter: 'It's OK to not be OK' — retired psychiatrist weighs in on pandemic mental health

'To feel that something is wrong with you when you have a normal and natural response is really bizarre'

Dear editor:

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed several inequalities and injustices inherent in our society. What is of special interest to me is the way it is affecting our prejudices about mental illness.

In our shame-based culture, stigmatization (stigma: mark of infamy, token of disgrace) of emotional distress and mental illness is rampant. It is inappropriate at any time, but now, with anxiety about the uncertainty of COVID, the effects of pandemic restrictions and especially social isolation, stigmatization is not only inappropriate, it is hugely harmful. To feel that something is wrong with you is one thing but to feel that something is wrong with you when you have a normal and natural response is really bizarre. I ask, are we stigmatizing people as being sick when they are just being sane? Does that not discourage them from getting help?

Aside from the drama created by the media and impressionable people, there are facts about COVID-19 that we all have to live with. Wearing a mask, distancing and avoiding crowds are fundamental – they really work – and we must live with that. However, those public health measures do have the effects of creating social isolation. It is distressing to live without being able to attend a concert, theatre, choir, go to house parties, family get-togethers and other social activities, which are so rejuvenating. 

Speaking with friends and family is probably the best way to reduce anxiety but congregating is discouraged by the regulations. 

Also, for all of us, there is the stress of uncertainty about the future. So, if you have anxiety or depression as a result of social deprivation, you are certainly experiencing normal feelings and you are certainly not alone. However, if this forces you to be withdrawn and lonely, that may start a vicious cycle where you will feel worse, withdraw more, feel worse again, avoid more friends or family and so forth. That could spiral into serious illness. Your COVID anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of. The best response to it is to take ownership of it and talk to people and get help. Don’t forget, strong people are the ones who get help.

There are a number of public B.C. websites that can direct you and give you much information. There are also online therapy sites. There are ways to get funded for clinical help from registered counsellors through our (Bowen Island) Adult Mental Health Support Program. There is also a Youth At Risk Support Program.

So, chase away those automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). Kill the ANTs! If you do something definitive to help yourself or others you will have a glorious feeling. It’s better to be a doing rather than just a being.  A little self-examination and moral reasoning will set you in the right direction: through getting help for yourself, as you would for others, you will be healthier and happier. Your self-esteem will be better, and you will be a better and wiser person. 

Listen to the lyrics to “OK Not to be OK” focusing on supporting those who may be struggling with anxiety or depression. 

Demi Lovato sings: “When you’re high on emotion / And you’re losing your focus / And you feel too exhausted to pray / Don’t get lost in the moment / Or give up when you’re closest / All you need is somebody to say / It’s OK not to be OK.”

Stephen J. Kiraly


Emeritus Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, UBC