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Coronavirus information
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Vanessa Holmes reads a book to her son Harrison with Mr. the parrot, on May 29, 2020, in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/Dave Chan

Here’s something Canadians have learned about themselves: lock the country down at home, and people will bake a lot of bread. "I have never enjoyed so much baking,” says Tim Lau, the president of medical staff at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, who, as a father of six, was sent to the store for yeast recently, only to find empty shelves.

As a psychiatrist, he speculates about the country’s attachment to kneading dough during a pandemic. “There is something symbolic about making this thing with your hands and watching it grow and then eating it together," he says. You can’t rush it. You have to pay attention. And what you create is meant to be savoured by others.

COVID-19, this collective chill pill we’ve all been forced to swallow, has achieved what mental health experts have been urging for years now – in unexpected ways, it slowed life down. It cleared away the morning commute, the rush to music lessons, the dressing for success. The din of a busy world was shushed.

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The method has been devastating and heartbreaking, and rates of self-reported stress and anxiety have risen, accordingly. It is also early – a second wave, a long recession and personal circumstances – will test the resolve of many families. But as researchers at Canada’s Vanier Institute of the Family dig through their survey findings to track what happens when a country screeches to a halt, they’re beginning to find positive trends as well, the kinds of habits that protect people in traumatic times, and, if kept, make life better when they’re over.

A majority of couples say they are fighting less often. Two-thirds of teenagers report having more meaningful conversations. People are spending more time in nature, and on their hobbies, and in their pyjamas, cuddling their children. TV viewing is way up, but so is relaxing. In a previously sleep-deprived population, a recent survey conducted by a researcher at the Royal Ottawa found that nearly one-third of Canadians said they were sleeping longer. As clear evidence of our relaxing standards, cosmetic purchases fell in March by 44 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

For many Canadians, suggests Nora Spinks, the Vanier Institute’s chief executive officer, the pandemic has raised questions about the way they were living before, and what changes have felt like improvements. Although it is still early days for data collection, the institute has been conducting weekly surveys of Canadians, and the majority of couples, Ms. Spinks said, are reporting better teamwork at home as people settle into the new normal. And while there is definitely a portion of people struggling with serious mental health issues brought on by isolation and family conflict and exacerbated by pre-existing conditions, Ms. Spinks says that, in a May survey, Canadian youth, while overwhelmingly feeling bored, were more likely to say they felt happy than sad since the pandemic started.

“Before it was hurry up hurry, you have to get to soccer, and the dishes stayed there until you got to them at midnight," Ms. Spinks says. “What we are hearing from both kids and adults about reopening is not wanting to go back to that business as usual.”

Well before COVID-19 arrived on the scene, Dr. Lau says, surveys had documented a steady rise in stress levels in Canadians even as other measures of quality of life, including income and overall health, have improved – a trend he credits, in large part, to the rising internal expectations people have felt for themselves and their children. “You have to wonder if you undid some of those things, what would happen?”

He compares the current state of many Canadian families to the movie RV. Robin Williams plays a dad who stuffs his wife and two teenagers into a recreational vehicle for a forced family road trip – just spending more time together in a tiny space with no other options brings them closer together. For many Canadians, the pandemic has also limited our choices (too many choices being its own stressor, Dr. Lau adds) as well as simplifying schedules and shifting priorities. It’s been a change with purpose – to protect others – and acts of altruism are also an important ingredient of positive mental heath.

Vanessa Holmes, an Ottawa social worker, falls into the category of parents under the most stress, according to the Vanier Institute’s data: a single mom with a two-year-old. And yet, Ms. Holmes, at home with her son, Harrison, and her parrot, Mister, is also able to see the benefits: no panicked morning exits, more quality time with Harrison, coffee in her pyjamas, getting to know her neighbours better. Not having to pay for daycare has meant more money in the bank. Her often-tense relationship with her ex-partner has also improved, she says, as he stepped up to help out more with Harrison. “That has definitely been one of my silver linings," she says.

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Of course, this isn’t universal, as both Dr. Lau and Ms. Spinks point out: Families who have lost jobs, or are dealing with sick loved ones, or people feeling isolated will need more support in the fallout of COVID-19. But the pandemic is being experienced differently by each family. “Through all these dark moments there will be bright spots,” Dr. Lau says.

In his house, he is enjoying the rare experience of all his children under the same roof. His son recently made noodles from scratch, nightly board games are on the schedule and no one is rushing out the door. He eventually did find yeast to facilitate his children’s enthusiastic baking experiments. “The air seems cleaner, the world is quieter,” he says. That won’t last, but some part of it might be preserved.

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