Vancouver therapist explains the challenges of mental health support during pandemic

Jun 11 2020, 4:11 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Mo Amir, host and producer of the podcast This is VANCOLOUR, based in Vancouver. 


“It takes so much energy to be in the space of change,” says Dr. Hillary McBride about the mental health challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. “Particularly when the change isn’t something we choose.”

McBride is a registered clinical counsellor in private practice based in Vancouver. She is also the host of the popular CBC podcast Other People’s Problems, which features her therapy sessions with different clients.

Even as COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift, the pandemic is “hugely disruptive” to the day-to-day lives of most people adapting to social distancing protocols.

“It takes a ton of executive functioning for us to be able to focus, plan, and adapt. Whenever we’re focusing that much, and there’s that much change, it’s exhausting. And then we’re also disconnected from our community… So not only are we tired and stressed, but then we can’t necessarily do the things that we would normally do to manage that stress.”

McBride’s private practice is not immune. Due to the pandemic, her therapy sessions immediately went online in March.

“Being in a room with a person, seeing their face, and feeling the energy between us is part of the magic of therapy. I’m not going to lie, going from being in-person in a room to staring at a screen for endless hours each day, was not my favourite thing.”

In addition to technical issues, like video lag, something as simple and powerful as eye contact can be lost online.

“When someone says something, they see how I smile or I tear up or I move with them. Then we move online and, to try to make eye contact with them, I’m looking at the green dot at the top of the screen which means that I can’t actually see their face because I’m having to pick: I want you to see me looking at you but to look at you, I’m not actually looking at you.”

Personal privacy also affects online sessions, as clients may have children or other family members at home. However, this also provides a new glimpse into a client’s life.

“Sometimes there’s more information in a way that’s beautiful and connecting and I would never otherwise see their homes. And they’re seeing mine too! There’s a humanness that happens.”

A strong rapport with her existing clients enabled a relatively smooth transition to virtual meetings.

Now, some clients are choosing to come back into McBride’s office, while others still have health, family, or employment challenges that do not allow them. Going online has provided flexibility to meet with clients while ensuring that sessions can occur without the added anxiety of exposure to others. This adaptability — and not having to travel — has allowed McBride to extend office hours to frontline workers in traumatizing environments.

Generally, people have reacted to the pandemic in a multitude of ways. Some experience stress and social isolation in a destabilizing manner. Others who were well-prepared for stress reach “deep into the coping bin” to take care of themselves and those around them. Some even “flourish.”

From her phenomenological perspective, McBride emphasizes each individual’s own unique variabilities, including history, context, and biology. Consequently, every person reacts differently to a stressor. Just like a rollercoaster elicits different emotions for different people, there are a variety of responses to any single experience, including a pandemic.

A general realization brought about by the pandemic, however, has been evident: “It kind of shatters our assumptions that we are in control of our lives and reminds us we are in this whole big system of people.”

One common coping pitfall may be to avoid anxiety by engaging in distractions, be they healthy (such as baking bread) or less healthy (watching endless hours of Netflix). But McBride advises that anxiety must often be confronted.

“We’re trying to do these things that we think will make us feel better, but they’re not because we might not be attending to the fact that it’s scary. We’re afraid and we are grieving. We’re not sure what’s gonna happen next.”

As for the future, Dr. McBride is optimistic.

“Sometimes in situations of pain, things that need to be attended to are attended to. Or people make changes in their life. I believe in the human spirit. I believe in our resilience as people that it’s available to us to heal even in the midst of turmoil.”

Her general advice is to talk to friends and family about feelings, monitor social media use to not overexpose ourselves to dysregulating images, exercise, and engage in activities that support mental health.

But, she does not underestimate the pandemic’s effect on our collective mental health.

“The consistent stressors or what we might call trauma fatigue — so many things after things after things overwhelming our systems — is going to have an impact.”

Have a listen to the full This is VANCOLOUR podcast with Dr. Hillary McBride:

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