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Distant, not disengaged: Mental wellness, gender and COVID-19

Alice Murage summarizes the discussion on COVID-19, mental wellness and gender during a webinar hosted by Simon Fraser University Public Square, the Gender and COVID-19 Project, CityHive, and the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. 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.

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 frontlines 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 in the frontline as health care workers also face disproportionally more threats to mental wellness.

Four out of five health care workers in British Columbia are women. We expect to see increased depression, stress, and anxiety on 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 everyday

Genesa Greening

In her work as a counsellor for women who have experienced violence, Bina Samilath noted that the pandemic has highlighted how unsafe homes can be for some women. With the lockdown, women had to isolate with abusive partners at a time when support services were limited due to 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 attend counselling sessions when their partners were away for work. They took care of their needs. They were able to breath easily. With COVID-19, the violence came home and there was no respite from it. COVID-19 highlighted how the marginalized individuals are impacted quite dramatically with pandemic restriction

Bina Salimath

Missing data and experiences of gender diverse individuals

Genesa emphasised that more need to be done to include missing voices in the COVID-19 impact data. Gendered data has been simplistic, with a focus 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 understand the experiences of the most vulnerable members of our society.

We are not getting segregated data. We are not getting data that is racialised, data that talks about trans folks, we are not getting the data talking along the gender spectrum and the non-binary folks. People that 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 that many gender diverse individuals who do not find acceptance at home, build communities of support outside their home. COVID-19 restrictions have presented a challenge to connecting to such communities. Community reports indicate an increase in the use of substance, anxiety, and some other forms of distress as well as behaviours of self-harm among gay, bisexual, and queer men. There has been a significant increase in demand for mental wellness resourced. 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 Dekelth explained that transgender survival street sex workers face multiple layers of vulnerabilities. They regularly face physical and sexual abuse in their work as well as challenges accessing shelters, women 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 shy away from seeking resources in women-centred spaces. Closures by service providers has further limited access to much needed resources, including washrooms, for transwomen experiencing poverty, homelessness, 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 to 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 is particularly important to diverse gender identities and women experiencing violence at home.

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

Lucas Wilson

Mental health needs for gender diverse individuals has always been high and supply of needed resources such as free counselling low, 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 faced delays and disruptions.

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


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