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U of T's Mindfest event to explore diversity and the impact of COVID-19 on mental health

(Photos courtesy of Kenneth Fung and Lisa Andermann)

The University of Toronto is gearing up to host its fourth-annual Mindfest event next week to build awareness of mental health and provide tips, resources and strategies for promoting mental wellness.

The event – happening virtually from March 8 to 12 – will explore implicit bias and diversity and the impact of the pandemic on student mental health, as well the tools and resources that people can use to practise self-care during difficult times. It is free for U of T students and faculty to attend.

Mindfest co-founder Kenneth Fung, an associate professor in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s department of psychiatry, recommends a number of ways to build resilience, ranging from connecting with our families, friends and communities in safe ways to joining a social movement.

He and fellow co-founder Lisa Andermann, also an associate professor of psychiatry, recently shared their thoughts with writer Ben Gane on how people can boost their mental wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic.


What impacts has COVID-19 had on people’s mental health?

Fung: As the pandemic drags on, it is quite normal to experience a wide variety of emotions, including anxiety, frustration and sadness.

People who initially coped well with the pandemic, and the resulting social isolation, may feel worn down.

Vulnerable, disadvantaged groups may face greater impacts, including discrimination, financial and housing concerns, as well as worsened mental or physical health.

All of this can increase the risk of mental health issues, from burnout to clinical depression, and even the potential contemplation of suicide.

What can people do to build resilience?

Fung: Resilience comes from both internal and external sources. We can build up our internal resilience by getting better sleep, exercising, meditating and engaging in meaningful and rewarding activities.

To build up our external resilience, we can connect with our families, friends and communities in safe ways. We can reach out for help from community and health-care services if we need it, and join in with various social movements to advocate for change together.

While there is undeniable big picture adversity, there is also opportunity for big picture healing.

We're not all experiencing the same pandemic. What advice can you give people facing anti-Asian racism, anti-Black racism or other prejudice? 

Fung: When you encounter racism, discrimination, harassment, or potential assault, put your safety first.

You may need to remove yourself from the situation immediately and get help. Such incidents may evoke various emotions, such as anger, shame, or powerlessness. We must remember that racism and xenophobia of any kind is never acceptable.

Covert, subtle, and overt racism are all traumatic and damaging. Get support from your friends, family, and community. We all share in our collective responsibility to combat stigma and discrimination.

When you witness racism, speak up and confront it in a safe manner, report it, or join a community action initiative. Collective voices are louder than individual voices, and together, we can all do our part in making our society safer and more equitable.

Can we bring growth and progress into our lives despite the pandemic?

Andermann: Time at home during the pandemic has certainly made it feel as though life is on hold. It has been hard for everyone, but especially for those who cannot visit family or who have experienced milestones that they would typically celebrate with others.

However, the pandemic has also given us a break from the pressure to be in multiple places at once.

There has been an opportunity to try new things – being challenged to turn an in-person event into an online format and being pleasantly surprised when it works out; taking courses or watching webinars from around the world and supporting local neighbourhood restaurants and shops when possible.

What tips do you have for finding joy during the pandemic?

Andermann: I’m focusing on meaningful, small moments appreciated in solitude or shared with others, with pets, in nature or outdoors, or comfortably indoors, can brighten one’s day. It could be a mindfully drinking a cup of tea, a walk around the block, in a park, or exploring a new part of the city.

Experience new things by trying new recipes or taking an online class. For me, a new puppy has been a great source of joy in the past months – although, I have to note, this comes with early mornings and making sure nothing chewable is left on the floor.

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