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Balancing Act

by Sadiya Ansari

photography by mike Ford

When the pandemic hit, Stella Isaac (BA ’20) was just finishing her degree. And while a transition to online learning helped see her through to graduation, virtual connection wasn’t going to cut it for her position as a varsity long jumper training with her team five hours a day, five days a week. She had always had sports in her life as an outlet, and when those workouts abruptly halted, Isaac struggled to get back on track. “My life is really balanced when I’m working out, and when I don’t work out, that’s an aspect of my life that is off-balance,” she says. “It was very, very difficult for me to find that inner strength to be motivated.”

Unfortunately, Isaac’s experience has been a common one during a global pandemic that has seen many people socially and physically isolated, often anchored in front of screens at home. Odds are good that you or someone you know has struggled with a loss of motivation, feelings of isolation, or worse: Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC) has been polling Canadians on their rates of anxiety and depression since last year, and its latest poll shows the highest incidence of both, with 25 per cent reporting anxiety and 17 per cent reporting depression. MHRC, which is conducting the polls in partnership with Health Canada, reports that the rate of depression has increased by 70 per cent since the first wave. For post-secondary students, the pandemic has compounded pre-existing pressures like heavy course loads, uncertain career prospects and rising tuition by adding social isolation, health anxieties and the need to adapt to online learning into the mix.

It was very, very difficult for me to find that inner strength to be motivated

Another source of stress during the pandemic is being unable to look forward to things, says Gordon Flett, a professor of psychology at York University and the Canada Research Chair in Personality and Health. Uncertainty, lack of control and financial pressure all compound stress, and that feeling is magnified for people already experiencing a mental health condition.

But Flett, like many others in the York community, is focusing on how his work can combat the intense level of stress, anxiety and depression taking hold during this trying period. In addition to University-wide programs including counselling services and the online initiative Wellness Wednesdays, individual academics are also doing their part – like Faculty of Health Professor Simon Adam, a social scientist in nursing whose program of scholarship focuses on the mental health industry, and who recently launched a podcast covering mental health.

For Isaac, regaining that balance meant reconnecting with what is important to her well-being – physical fitness and community. In May of 2020, after heeding the advice of her mother and older sister, who urged her to draw on her experience as a University athlete, she came up with the idea to organize a group workout program to take place on a Saturday evening on a street corner in Parkdale, her neighbourhood in Toronto. Despite Isaac’s call out on Facebook and Instagram welcoming people to participate, only three neighbours showed up to join her family members. But no matter. Word soon spread, and within a month, “NaCl Saturdays” (or “Salty Saturdays,” to translate the chemical formula) was attracting dozens of participants ranging from five-year-olds to seniors.

Accessibility became a key component of Isaac’s ethos. She built modifications into every routine to ensure that if a school-aged kid convinced his or her parents or grandparents to come along, everyone would be able to do the exercises.

 

Meaningful Connections

 

ISAAC’S INTEREST in facilitating social interaction – and even her desire to stay inclusive of a broader community – speaks to a psychological concept that Flett believes is key to combatting the isolation people are feeling right now: mattering. Quite simply, our need to matter is that desire to have meaningful connections, to feel significant – the feel-good sentiment in stories we often hear, like a teacher who pushes someone to pursue post-secondary education, or a favourite aunt who checks in regularly.

The isolation many are experiencing during the pandemic is contributing to feelings of loneliness, which Flett’s research has shown is strongly associated with feelings of not mattering. “The flip side of mattering is marginalization,” says Flett. But there are proactive steps we can all take to help people feel like they matter. These include checking in on people, telling someone how much they are needed, asking about their needs and acknowledging selfless acts. Flett applauds the recent Canada Post campaign where every household across the country was sent a prepaid postcard to mail to a loved one, saying a simple act like that can show someone you are thinking about them, that they matter.

The flip side of mattering is marginalization

Feeling like you matter is correlated with other positive emotions and behaviours. In the context of the pandemic, Flett points to a recent study he was involved in that examined Israeli students’ adaptability to online learning during the pandemic. The study, published in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, showed that students who reported feeling that they mattered were more likely to adapt well to online learning. And it confirmed other positive correlations: “Both belonging and mattering were associated with elevated levels of adaptability, in accordance with previous research linking belongingness and mattering with adaptability, buoyancy and resilience.”

Showing someone they matter can go beyond personal connections and academic environments. In the workplace, research shows, feeling like you matter can prevent burnout, absenteeism and other mental health issues, says Flett. And there are still ways to do this, even during a pandemic, like mentorship. Flett sees a “double bonus” in this: the person being mentored feels supported, and the mentor feels like someone depends on them. Ultimately, seeking out opportunities for connection – at home, work or school – is the key to cultivating this feeling.

 

Online Interventions

 

THE MOST COMMON FORM of one-on-one connection recommended to those trying to manage a mental health issue is counselling – but even pre-pandemic, Farah Ahmad, an associate professor in the Faculty of Health, realized that wasn’t an option for many students.

Along with Christo El Morr, Paul Ritvo and others, Ahmad set out to study the potential of online interventions that marry cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness. Both practices have proven to reduce depression and anxiety, and while there was some work involved in adapting them for online applications, Ahmad says, there was a much bigger opportunity to be examined.

The study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and its industry partner ForaHealthyMe, was designed to see whether web-based interventions could help students – a population that often doesn’t have easy access to counselling, and is more likely feel stigma accessing it on campus but is quite comfortable online. The researchers held focus groups with York students to identify key stressors, like body image and procrastination, that would found the basis for online modules. Two iterations of an eight-week study included a 10-minute module followed by breathing exercises, along with online discussion, both peer-to-peer and professionally guided. In the first version of the study, modules were available for four weeks, with the following four weeks turned over to discussion. In the second run, modules were available the whole time.

During the pandemic, we are becoming more aware of the potential of these virtual tools

Ahmad characterizes the main outcomes of the study as “amazing”: participants showed “significant reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety and perceived stress.” In a subsequent study, a third group had access only to modules, with no online discussion, and the modules on their own were also effective at reducing depression, anxiety and perceived stress. Ahmad says this is a “significant insight” that indicates this could be a cost-effective tool made widely available. It’s also a tool that could reach many more populations beyond students.

“During the pandemic, we are becoming more aware of the potential of these virtual tools,” says Ahmad. “There is a huge opportunity for [evidence-based programs] to be scaled up.”

Stella Isaac also introduced virtual tools to her workouts when a local fitness studio approached her to do online sessions. She agreed and asked the studio if they would make the sessions free to people of colour. “I wanted to continue to foster a sense of community,” she says, “and make fitness accessible to all.”

With the weather co-operating and “NaCl Saturdays” again taking place outdoors, Isaac reflects on how leading others in physical exercise helped her through those first few tough months of the pandemic. “It really gave me something to look forward to during the week,” she says.

It’s something participants in her mental, physical and community health–boosting fitness program look forward to as well. For some, the one-hour workout is their sole weekly window to be outside for a prolonged period of time. Isaac will be encouraging even more people to stay active this summer as a fitness leader for the nationwide Community Better Challenge, a Government of Canada initiative marking the 50th anniversary of the country’s physical fitness ParticipACTION brand. Isaac can’t wait to get started. “I am grateful to God that I can pour into others,” she says, “and that makes me feel good.”  

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