Highlights from Mental Wellness & COVID-19: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

November 26, 2020

Alice Murage
Research Fellow, Gender and COVID-19 Project, SFU

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University, SFU Public Square or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

Alice Murage summarizes the discussion on COVID-19, mental wellness and gender during a Distant, Not Disengaged webinar hosted by SFU Public Square, CityHive, the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and the Gender and COVID-19 Project. The discussion highlighted that while COVID-19 is taking a toll on everyone’s mental wellness, threats to mental health are not experienced equally. Gender has a lot to do with it, as do other identities and vulnerabilities.

Our moderators were Julia Smith and Kelley Lee, a co-lead and a senior advisor on the Gender and COVID-19 Project, respectively.

Our guest speakers were: Sekani Dakelth, Facilitator at PACE Society and Megaphone; Genesa Greening, President & CEO at BC Women’s Health Foundation; Alvaro Luna, Mental Health Program Specialist at Health Initiative for Men; Bina Salimath, Board Member at Vancouver Women’s Health Collective; and Lucas Wilson, Care Team Coordinator at Trans Care BC. Over 100 participants attended.

Women, mental wellness and COVID-19

Women in Canada, and around the world, are reporting higher levels of anxiety, stress and COVID-19-related challenges compared to men. Women continue to shoulder the majority of (now increased) unpaid care work in the home, they have been pushed out of the workforce in greater numbers than men, they are more likely to experience domestic violence during lockdowns, and they make up 81% of the health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic response. These outcomes contribute to mental health impacts of COVID-19.

Prior to the pandemic, the unpaid care work that has been done by women in British Columbia works out to six million hours a week. With COVID-19, this work has increased for women — it is not equally distributed across genders in the household.

Genesa Greening

Those working on the front lines as health care workers also face disproportionally more threats to their mental wellness.

Four out of five health care workers in British Columbia are women. We expect to see increased depression, stress and anxiety in them as they grapple with what it means to be with their families, go to work and be exposed, and then go home and worry about those exposures, and also see loss and challenges every day.

Genesa Greening

In her work as a counsellor for women who have experienced violence, Bina Salimath noted that the pandemic has highlighted how unsafe homes can be for some women. With the lockdown, women may have had to isolate themselves with abusive partners at a time when support services were limited due to COVID-related closures. Shelters also had limited capacities. In addition, women who had separated from abusive partners but did not have custody of their children faced challenges seeing their children at the beginning of the pandemic because of reduced legal services.

During the lockdown, for many women, home became a very unsafe space. Before the pandemic, the women I work with were able to seek resources they needed, such as attending counselling sessions when their partners were away for work. They took care of their needs. They were able to breathe easily. With COVID-19, the violence came home and there was no respite from it. COVID-19 highlighted how marginalized individuals are impacted quite dramatically by pandemic restrictions.

Bina Salimath

Missing data and experiences of gender-diverse individuals

Genesa emphasised that more needs to be done to include missing voices in the COVID-19 impact data. Gendered data has been simplistic, with a focus on cisgender men and women, largely excluding the experiences of transgender and non-binary people from the COVID-19 narrative. An intersectional lens in collecting data is necessary to understand the experiences of the most vulnerable members of our society.

We are not getting segregated data. We are not getting data that is racialized, data that talks about trans folks, we are not getting the data talking along the gender spectrum and about non-binary folks — people who deserve to be counted in these statistics so that we can actually develop a response to these realities.

Genesa Greening

Gender-diverse individuals face layers of challenges that have been compounded by COVID-19 restrictions. Alvaro Luna informed us that many gender-diverse individuals who do not find acceptance at home build communities of support outside their homes. COVID-19 restrictions have presented a challenge to connecting to such communities. Community reports indicate an increase in substance use, anxiety, behaviours of self-harm, and other forms of distress among gay, bisexual and queer men. There has been a significant increase in demand for mental wellness resources. Alvaro also highlighted the importance of considering intersectional identities. Young gender-diverse people, for example, have not been impacted the same way as those who are older.

Sekani Dakelth explained that transgender sex workers face multiple layers of vulnerabilities. They regularly face physical and sexual abuse in their work, as well as challenges accessing shelters, women’s centres and other needed resources. Lack of access to basic necessities due to COVID-19 restrictions and shortages, such as a razor to shave in order to present as feminine, causes transgender women to shy away from seeking resources in women-centred spaces. Closures by service providers have further limited access to much-needed resources, including washrooms, for trans women experiencing poverty, houselessness and working in the streets.

The greater the marginalization, the greater the impact of COVID-19 has been.

Bina Salimath

Intersectional approach to health care accessibility

With COVID-19, most health care services have moved online. This has improved access for some people, particularly those in remote communities, but it has also made health care inaccessible to many who do not have access to technology or a safe space to access resources. A safe space and privacy are particularly important to people with diverse gender identities and women experiencing violence at home.

Most transgender or two-spirit folks may not live in situations or homes where it is safe for them to disclose their identity and talk openly about their identity. Many folks were really depending on those out-of-home, office-based providers they can visit to talk about identity and to explore those topics.

Lucas Wilson

Mental health needs for gender-diverse individuals have always been high while the supply of needed resources such as free counselling has been low, and this service gap has been augmented by COVID-19. The mental health of trans people is also linked to access to other health care services such as gender-affirming surgeries and hormone therapies, which have faced delays and disruptions during COVID-19.

A lot has been done to improve accessibility of resources during the pandemic in a short amount of time. We need to consider having the same level of dedication to improving accessibility over time for all populations. We need to be creative in how we are reaching out to people in terms of providing services while considering safety.

Lucas Wilson

Thank you for joining us throughout the Distant, Not Disengaged event series! Find video recordings, recap blogs and other resources from the rest of the events in the series here.

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