MONTREAL -- As the healthcare system scrambles to keep up with the pressure imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, places like the Douglas Mental Health University Institute have had to modify their facilities to accommodate patients facing greater struggles than what they’re used to.

Last week, the institute developed a special unit for psychiatric patients who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, and a section of the hospital has been reserved for suspected cases. 

So far, the institute has seen very few cases, since protective measures were put in place quickly. 

“All the activities in the hospital have been adapted,” said Dr. Gustavo Turecki, the institute’s scientific director and the head of the department of psychiatry at the CIUSSS Ouest-de-l'Ile-de-Montreal. “Most of our outpatient services today occur through telemedicine, whether by phone or by internet apps that allow us to do assessments online.” 

Turecki explained that when online assessments aren’t possible, protective equipment is available for the institute’s workers.

“We follow the directives to make sure that the personnel are not at-risk and that the patients receive the care that is necessary,” he said. 

Because the Douglas deals with mental rather than physical health, Turecki said the health system’s priorities were elsewhere during the first stages of the pandemic. 

“Once the more immediate priorities were addressed, the needs were taken into consideration,” he said. “I think this was done in a timely fashion.” 

As the government continues to advise people to stay indoors to minimize the spread of the virus, some are finding it challenging to their mental health. The Douglas hasn’t seen an increase in demand for its services yet, but it’s early, Turecki said. 

“The current situation has an impact on everybody, myself included,” he said. “I think that these are extraordinary times, and levels of stress have gone up for everybody. I think that people who have a predisposition to have mental health problems (are) more at risk.”

Establishing routines and being aware of red flags are two ways Turecki suggests people can minimize the pandemic’s impact on their lives to protect their mental health. He said humans like routines, so establishing them, even if they differ from what they're used to, can be really helpful.

Within the home space, Turecki said it’s important for people to be aware of their limits, and to recognize when they should retreat from family members or roommates.

“As much as we may live with them on a regular basis, we may not necessarily be used to the current situation,” he said. “We are sort of stepping on each other’s toes.”

Turecki also suggests for people to stay connected to their loved ones through the internet when they’re feeling isolated.

“I think it’s important that we understand and take things one day at a time,” he said. “It is a special moment, right now, it may seem like we’ve been in this forever, but we have not, and it’s not going to last forever.”