Story Unmasked: Zaineb, Mental Health & Community Support Worker (Ontario)

Interviewed and published by Aliza Khalid.

Not everyone cooperates and takes safety seriously, [so] as support workers, we have to navigate through people’s frustration with kindness.

Pandemic Perspectives from the Lens of a Community Support Worker

Out of the many essential workers who continue to make meaningful contributions to their local communities, mental health and community support workers are often overlooked and their services are almost regarded as an after-thought. However, such services have become crucial in the pandemic as people isolate at home alone and ensure social distancing is maintained. I reached out to my friend Zaineb, who works as a community relief and support worker to find out how the pandemic has affected her work and personal life.

“We assist people at shelters with things like organizing their paperwork for housing or scheduling urgent appointments with doctors and counselors. As community support workers, we have to ensure people are getting the resources they need.”

Zaineb often has to work within short timeframes as the nature of help that a client needs can be pressing and require a timely response. “It can be challenging because I regularly need to work with other service providers to help my clients and that coordination can take time. With my job comes a lot of thinking on the spot, and sometimes we are short on staff or I am working all alone so I have to be very resourceful and quick.”

At work, COVID-19 has added to the already stressful nature of her job. “We are meticulous about disinfecting all high-contact surfaces and taking people’s temperatures whenever they enter or exit the building. Most people are diligent about wearing masks but there is always that one odd person who needs to be reminded. Not everyone cooperates and takes safety seriously, and as support workers we have to navigate through people’s frustration with kindness.”

It is really overwhelming to navigate the current support system we have... [this] is why many people give up so quickly.

Despite adopting and enforcing all safety measures at work, Zaineb realizes that the virus has contributed to more anxiety than usual at work. “I do not have a car so instead of taking the bus, I find myself using an Uber to commute these days as that feels like a safer option.” It adds to her expenses but Zaineb is willing to spend that money because she wants to be as careful as she can, provided the circumstances. “Maintaining a safe distance can be difficult at my job since we often work with clients who have little children. I have been paranoid about keeping myself safe so as to make sure my family and my clients are safe when they interact with me.”

[When asked] why people tend to disregard the importance of mental health and support services, Zaineb points out the stigma attached to the concept. “People feel embarrassed to reach out for help, or sometimes others make them feel weak for wanting to reach out. Cultural differences are also a reason because many cultures don’t believe in mental health in general. Also it is really overwhelming to navigate the current support system we have, and it is why many people give up so quickly. Unless you are referred by someone or you are guided by someone to these resources, it is generally a bit more difficult to find such services.” She believes a major shift in perspective is due however, and most people are beginning to understand the gravity of mental illnesses and the usefulness of support services.

She gives credit to the online accounts and campaigns that are spreading the word. “There are so many resources on social media right now that are raising awareness and educating people about mental health. Every social media channel has plenty of information to sort through. It is being talked more about for sure, and seeking help is being more readily accepted in society.”

Reminiscing about life before the coronavirus, Zaineb wishes she would have sought out and appreciated the things that make life worth living for. “If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to enjoy every moment there is, to focus on the present, and to appreciate the gift of being able to go to any place and see anyone at any time. I would also tell myself to trust the process and believe that everything happens for a reason."

I have definitely learned to look out for the good moments and be grateful for them.

She is eager to share the little pockets of happiness she has found despite the pandemic restrictions. “I have been cooking often due to the lockdown and not being able to do much socially. Making new dishes and sharing them with friends online has been more fun than I expected. Also I have been spending a lot more time with my mom, enjoying leisurely walks with her and taking in nature together. I have derived so much comfort from this one meaningful relationship alone.”

These relationships, whether in person or online, fuel our energy and boost our mental health. Like many of us, Zaineb has been able to find new avenues to revive her connections with family and friends, but being a support worker she is concerned about those who are all alone in these challenging times. Her services are essential and can be life-changing for those who are impaired due to their situation. It remains true that it is not just the medical frontline workers who have been contributing.

Community support workers, like Zaineb, are one of our silent heroes, working non-stop to make sure that the least advantaged of our society are not left without the necessary emotional encouragement and practical support they need to survive this pandemic.

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