The city begins to take into account the toll of the occupation on the mental health of the inhabitants

For Juan Sosa, Saturday was always the worst.

That’s when trucks parked outside Sosa’s fourth-floor flat on Queen Street honked their horns day and night, seemingly oblivious to him, his partner or their neighbours.

The constant drone caused Sosa to cover his ears with noise canceling headphones and lock himself in the bathroom. It did not work.

“I couldn’t hide anywhere,” he said on Wednesday. “I felt like I was going crazy.”

For many residents, especially those living in the downtown “red zone” where a sense of threat has loomed as thick as diesel fog for three lawless weeks, Ottawa’s occupation has pushed them to the edge of the abyss, psychologically and emotionally.

For some, especially those already struggling to maintain control of their mental health, it might have pushed them over the edge.

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“They were terrified”

“I saw with my own eyes what was happening to my clients,” said KJ Thomas, a social worker at The Royal, Ottawa’s mental health center, who participated in home visits during the occupation.

“They were terrified. They didn’t understand what was going on,” Thomas said. “I had a client who was pushed to the ground, I had multiple reports of name calling and so on, and then I’m just scared to leave the house, scared of what might happen, scared of the unknown.”

You don’t even realize all the multiple ways something like this impacts the community.– KJ Thomas, The Royal

Their anxiety escalated when it became clear that Ottawa police themselves were struggling to control the situation, she said.

“We are seeing a big increase in depression and anxiety, and a lot of that can be linked to the unknown – not knowing what this situation was, not knowing what it was going to become, people feeling really trapped and helpless because they don’t know who to talk to.”

Thomas said his team’s “on the ground” outreach work was itself often hampered by the occupation.

“So it really affected how we could give quality time to our clients,” she said.

A counter-protester sends a message on February 5. Many downtown residents have complained of sleepless nights due to near-constant car horns outside their homes. “That’s why it’s used as a tactic of torture: sleep deprivation really has a huge psychological effect on our minds and, therefore, on our physical bodies,” said KJ Thomas, a social worker who specializes in mental health at the Royal. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Thomas tells the story of a client who landed a job as a dishwasher, but felt so unsafe during the occupation that he started taking taxis to work, abandoning the meager income that he had finally started earning.

“This person was so proud of this work,” Thomas said. “You don’t even realize all the multiple ways something like this impacts the community.”

Patients suffered, says psychotherapist

Zahra Nafar, a licensed psychotherapist and certified clinical trauma professional, said her patients also suffered during the occupation.

“There was not a single person among my patients in Ottawa who was not affected in some way. Many of them experienced a lot of anxiety, some of which exhibited PTSD-like symptoms,” said Nafar, who added that she was also harassed as she tried to get to her Albert Street office.

She said that even now this intense fear persists.

“They don’t want to go out, they don’t want to go shopping because they’re worried. Even the logical part of their brain is like, ‘These people are gone,’ but the emotional part of their brain is still telling them: “No, there is always a danger. You are not safe.”

Nafar said for people who have experienced trauma in the past, that fear is even more intense.

“A lot of them have a history, and it made their symptoms worse. Some of them had panic and anxiety attacks, and there are people who had flashbacks,” he said. she told CBC. Ottawa morning.

A woman walks past parked trucks in downtown Ottawa on February 16. A few days later the trucks were gone, but mental health experts say the anxiety inflicted on residents may linger for some time. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“Gas lighting” only adds to the problem

Many residents, whether or not they had suffered past trauma, experienced physical manifestations such as hypervigilance, insomnia, irritability, restlessness and difficulty concentrating, Nafar said.

Then there are the car horns, which some residents say continue to hear days after the last truck has been towed, like a menacing ghost.

“Right now, our brain is heading towards this place of trauma, this worst-case scenario, and it will take time for individuals, for our community to [get] to a point where our reactions are not heightened,” Nafar said.

On Wednesday, Ottawa City Council discussed the impact of the occupation on residents’ mental health as officials try to come up with an adequate response.

“It’s a lot of trauma that people have been through, and we really need to support them on the pitch,” Coun noted. Shawn Menard, who strongly criticized the initial response from Ottawa police and other agencies.

Com. Cathy Curry noted that the “gaslighting” that is currently being perpetrated by many Canadians, including some politicians, only adds to the sense of abandonment that many Ottawa residents feel.

“The thought that across Canada people would think that we were really making this up, that it was really about love, it’s really upsetting for people,” Curry said. “People will need to deal with this trauma.”


The following mental health advice was submitted by KJ Thomas of The Royal:

Check with yourself. How are you? What are your thoughts and behaviors? Have there been any changes in your sleep, diet, temperament, or bodily sensations? If so, it’s a good idea to see a doctor or counselor, or even a loved one you trust.

When, in the moment of struggle, try to think back to times when you felt at peace and ask yourself, “What parts of this can I emulate? » Focus on the things that are in your control and remember that small steps are relevant and have an impact on well-being.

We are all full of strength – that’s what got us to where we are today. We will continue to be resilient, and having other people to lean on can help us through change.

Visit the Royal’s website for resources. There are many groups offered for free, as well as learning opportunities. In addition, the mental health crisis hotline is available to everyone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1+ (866) 996-0991.

Michael A. Bynum