Q&A with Dr. Kathleen Pajer: Working on the mental health frontlines during a pandemic

Posted on Friday, April 3, 2020

Closeup of leafy vines on a wall.

With pressures like social isolation, unemployment and financial stresses, the current pandemic isn’t just a risk to our physical health—it’s having a serious impact on our mental health too. 

Portrait of Dr. Kathleen Pajer

There are few people who know this better than Dr. Kathleen Pajer. As the University of Ottawa’s Department of Psychiatry chair and the head of CHEO’s Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Pajer has been working on the frontlines of the current health crisis as a mental health expert.

Over the past few weeks, she, along with her colleagues in hospitals across the region, have been adjusting intake processes and patient-flow pathways to minimize the risk of infection. Meanwhile, outpatient care is rapidly shifting to virtual appointments to protect patients, physicians and staff from the virus, while still taking care of the mental health needs in our population.

She and her colleagues are also working hard to develop and deliver tools to youth and families.

“We are developing several initiatives to support parents and young people through this time, hoping we can not only keep them stable, but perhaps use all this as an opportunity for families to grow stronger,” says Dr. Pajer.

Recognizing that this is a challenging time for students, faculty and staff at the University, Dr. Pajer spoke with us this week to answer some of our questions about managing mental health during such a challenging time.

How can people recognize the difference between feeling cagey, moody or sad and the potential onset of a developing mental illness? What are the key signs that it is time to reach out for help?

It is normal in this situation to be afraid, sad, angry, hopeless, or even think about death a lot. These experiences are what make us human and are NOT symptoms of mental illness. It is only when those feelings or states will not give you a break, for many days in a row, that you should seek professional help.

This is a stressful time for everyone, especially students who have exams in a few weeks. What are your top tips for maintaining mental health and coping through this challenging time?

Here are some good ways to get through this:

  • Set aside 10-15 minutes every day and allow yourself to have feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness, etc. You can even set a timer for this. It may help a lot if you keep a journal and write down all the bad things in your mind as fast as you can about this situation. Then, close the notebook, stop thinking about the difficult things and go do something enjoyable.
  • Set COVID-19 goals for yourself that don't involve connecting with anyone on devices. For example, ‘When this is all over, I want to be really good at X’ or ‘I want to have learned how to Y.’
  • Set up a life schedule for yourself: sleeping, eating, walking outside, fun time—all at set times. Stick to it every day.
  • Be creative with contacting your friends and family. Use video conferencing platforms to have dinner parties, coffee and play group games.
  • Join something that is doing positive things to help others.
Are there behaviours or coping techniques that you discourage in a time like this?

It is counterproductive to be compulsively viewing the news or the constant news scroll on social media. It will definitely have a negative effect on your mood and anxiety. Also, trying to distract yourself with alcohol, drugs or food is a dead-end street.

What impact is this period of physical distancing having on young people? What suggestions do you have on lessening its impact?

Social distancing may not be all bad. Depending on your situation, people may draw closer to small numbers of people in ways that are more meaningful. It can lead to a feeling of isolation if you are by yourself, but I strongly recommend the fun types of groupings with friends or family as described above.

Need to talk? Resources are available to you. Check out the Mental Health and Wellness website for the most up-to-date service information and upcoming events (delivered virtually!).

Mental health support for students:

For students still in Ontario

  • uOttawa Counselling and Coaching (Ontario residents only): 613-562-5200 or couns@uottawa.ca Our counselling services have moved to phone and online services for Ontario residents. Connect with them!
  • Good2Talk 24/7: 1-866-925-5454
  • Empower Me: 1-844-741-6389 (Undergrad students)
  • Student Support Program (SSP): 1-855-649-8641 (Grad students)


For students out of the province

  • Empower Me: 1-844-741-6389 (Undergrad students)
  • Student Support Program (SSP): 1-855-649-8641 (Grad students)
  • International SOS (for students outside of Ontario): 1-215-942-8226 and confirm the uOttawa membership number of 27AYCA091396


For students residing outside of Canada

  • International SOS: 1-215-942-8226 and confirm the uOttawa membership number of 27AYCA091396


Mental health support for professors and staff members:

  • 24/7 EFAP: 1-844-880-9142
  • Ottawa Distress Centre: 613-238-3311
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