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American writer Paul Fussell, who died in 2012, was the author of well-crafted books of essays and literary criticism. He was an infantryman in Europe during the Second World War, an experience that made him so weary of being ordered around that he set himself up as a sort of high-end curmudgeon, heaping scorn on the world around him in books such as Bad, or, the Dumbing of America.

He had a theory about courage. He wrote that, from what he had observed on the battlefield, soldiers don’t grow cooler under fire as their combat experience grows. To the contrary, he writes in Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, “each man begins with a certain full reservoir, or bank account, of bravery, but … each time it’s called upon, some is expended, never to be regained.”

Something similar seems to be happening to many of us during the long battle against COVID-19. Our psychic reservoirs have been depleted by months of fear and uncertainty. We are running on fumes. One result is a surge in emotional and mental distress.

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As The Globe and Mail reported this week, police, doctors and crisis lines are all recording more mental-health calls. A poll for one charity group showed record levels of depression. “The second wave of the pandemic has intensified feelings of stress and anxiety, causing alarming levels of despair, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness in the Canadian population,” the Canadian Mental Health Association reported in December.

That this should be so is hardly surprising. We have been living in a state of crisis for almost a year. When the pandemic was declared last March, many people thought the worst would be over in a few weeks or months. The lull in the summer seemed like the beginning of the end. Then came the cruel second wave and a series of new lockdowns. Canadians cheered when the vaccines started arriving at the end of last year, only to slump back in their seats when deliveries slowed and frightening new variants raised their heads.

How long will we be on this roller coaster? When can we see our family and friends again? Will things ever get back to normal? These questions haunt many of us.

The sheer scale of the crisis is overwhelming. The virus has infected more than 100 million people worldwide and killed more than two million. More people have died in a single Barrie, Ont., long-term care home in recent weeks than perished during the SARS crisis of 2003. Even when the global health emergency comes to an end, as it will, its impact on mental health is bound to linger. Those already suffering from mental illness are at risk, as are many who until now were not.

Well before the coronavirus came along, it was clear that Canada had to do more to grapple with the problem of mental illness. Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says “the disease burden of mental illness and addiction in Ontario is 1.5 times higher than all cancers put together … This includes years lived with less than full function and years lost to early death.” Mental distress is one of the factors behind Canada’s other health emergency, the opioids crisis, which is killing more people than COVID-19 in some parts of the country.

So any recovery plan must include a big push on mental health. The World Health Organization says countries spend less than 2 per cent of their health budgets on mental-health care.

In Canada, fortunately, governments have begun recognizing the extent of the problem and are spending more on it. Private investment is coming, too. Thanks to programs such as Bell’s annual Let’s Talk Day, which took place this week, people are opening up about their struggles.

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But, sad to say, misunderstanding and simple prejudice are still far too common. Many of those suffering from mental distress live in shame and silence. Some can’t get the support they need when they need it. Agencies that could help are often overburdened and under-resourced.

The current crisis offers a chance to change all that. Many good things could come out of this disaster, from better medical techniques to more livable cities. A new resolve to take on the diseases and disorders of the mind is surely one of them.

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