Long road to recovery underway following convoy occupation

6 MIN READ

Evidence of a nearly four-week long occupation in downtown Ottawa has cleared, making lasting effects of the crisis more difficult to see. Long-term repercussions remain for many residents who were already experiencing mental health challenges, social isolation, and financial instability. 

Hidden impacts 

United Way East Ontario has worked closely with more than 35 social service partners to support staff and clients who experienced intense levels of trauma, fear, and anxiety during the 24-day occupation. 

In conversation with our partners working in and around the downtown core, we heard:  

  • Vulnerable and marginalized people, and those working to support them, were being harassed by occupation members.  
  • People living with mobility issues in the city’s centre became isolated.   
  • Access to food and social services became extremely difficult due to a lack of transportation options downtown.   
  • Residents were paralyzed by the fear of being confronted by occupiers once outside of their homes or shelters.  
  • Demand for services went up due to the occupation, but partners were finding themselves short-staffed and financially strained. 

We know that individuals who have experienced major trauma may develop increased anxiety, nervousness, depression, panic-disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[i] in the weeks, and even months, after a crisis has occurred.[ii]

It’s going to take time to rebuild and truly recover. 

Who continues to be most at risk, and how?

The community services sector in Ottawa’s downtown core supports many of the most vulnerable people in our region—a significant number of whom have histories of trauma and were triggered severely by the aggressive atmosphere created by the occupation. 

Who lives here? 

Location 

Senior pop (65+) 

Senior Vulnerability Score (out of 10) 

% Children (0-14) 

% Youth (14-24) 

% Indigenous people 

High socioeconomic disadvantage (out of 5) 

Low Income prevalence 

West Centretown 

15% 

10 

11% 

12.70% 

2.60% 

5 

28.20% 

Centretown 

12.20% 

9.6 

5.50% 

13.50% 

3.10% 

3 

20.80% 

Byward Market 

15.10% 

6.2 

4.40% 

14.10% 

2.40% 

3 

19.20% 

Lowertown 

17.50% 

10 

12.30% 

15.50% 

3.20% 

5 

39.20% 

Source: 2016 census 

A higher prevalence of PTSD following a crisis has been reported among those most directly or heavily affected by the event [iii] , including rescue workers[iv]; women[v], children and youth[vi]; seniors;[vii] those with pre-existing or related psychiatric conditions[viii]; and those who have previously experienced traumatic events.[ix]  

Those living in low-income households tend to have more barriers accessing mental health resources, and have been found to be at greater risk of experiencing negative psychological symptoms in the wake of crises.[x]

Some residents who may have needed social services before the occupation but were deterred from leaving their homes because of it, may need to again work up the courage to seek help. 

In addition to emotional and mental trauma suffered during the occupation, social service partners, who were already struggling financially, were forced to hire transportation and security services to protect their employees and clients. While United Way has helped address some of these additional costs, it will still take time for many agencies to fully recover financially. 

Many of our partners also expressed sheer exhaustion, having to deal with increased demand and not enough staff members or volunteers due to COVID-19 before the convoy arrived downtown. Their long-standing issues became exacerbated by yet another crisis. 

It is important that our communities have accessible social and emotional supports, not only in the weeks after a major crisis, but also for many months after.

Demand for services continues to rise 

The number of individuals seeking mental health services after a major event, such as the occupation of Ottawa’s downtown, has been known to increase dramatically. 

When six tornadoes hit neighbourhoods in and around Ottawa in 2018, a major part of United Way’s response was addressing the long-term mental health effects of the disaster. Thanks to our donors, we invested in counselling, crisis lines and other mental health supports for those experiencing trauma in the affected communities.  

The Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region reported that the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa was the main topic of discussion in approximately one out of every three calls, chats, and texts answered by Distress Centre responders. 

“As the demonstration moved beyond the first weekend of occupation, the level of distress and crisis greatly increased. Nearly half of the interactions were now from residents in distress or in crisis. Residents living with mental health issues like panic disorders, phobias, PTSD, psychotic disorders or schizophrenia were now being greatly affected by the demonstration ... Twelve percent of clients were so distraught by the events that unfolded that they had thoughts of suicide.”

Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region

Mental health support is not only needed in the days during and immediately following a crisis. In many cases it can be months after a crisis before some individuals realize they are suffering severe emotional trauma and need to reach out for help. 

Resiliency: Neighbours helping neighbours 

United Way has continued to amplify the voices of its social services partners through the compounded challenges they’ve faced in the fallout of the convoy occupation.  

We also recognize the response and support are stronger when we work together. By bringing all the affected agencies together after the convoy settled into our streets, we supported a network of like-minded people and organizations who could lean on each other and collaborate to cope with the crisis.  

Services such as 211 offered to help coordinate between social service providers to organize essential transportation and food services for their clients. Others were able to share best practices during times of need. 

Following the occupation, many residents have made a point to support the businesses that suffered additional hardships from the convoy’s presence. 

But now that the streets are clear and urgent needs have been addressed, there’s a risk—and natural tendency—for people to move on. There’s a tendency to want to think back on positive stories following a disaster, brush our hands and believe our work has been done—that life will return to normal.   

This may be true in time, but it can take months, or even years. 

The road ahead 

Residents living in and around downtown Ottawa will continue to feel the long-term effects of the occupation of their neighbourhoods—long after immediate, crisis needs have been met—particularly among the most vulnerable people: seniors, women, youth experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities, those with pre-existing and related psychiatric conditions, those with previous experiences with trauma, and individuals and families in lower-income situations. 

Having stable access to social and mental health supports will be crucial for families and individuals to rebuild their lives, communities and wellbeing over the long term.  

At United Way, we have a long history of rallying the financial support of our donors to help the most vulnerable. But we don’t only raise funds and allocate them where they’ll best be put to work. Our crisis response work is perfect example of the robust nature of our work in research, convening, advocacy, investing and fundraising—work that, when combined, helps us make a difference in the lives of people in need. 

[i] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813; Madakasira, S., O’Brien, K.F. Acute posttraumatic stress disorder in victims of a natural disaster.  1987.  Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 175(5), 286-290. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3572380 

[ii] See generally La Greca, A. Silverman, W.K., Vernberg, E.M. Prinstein M.J.  Symptoms of posttraumatic stress in children after Hurricane Andrew: a prospective study.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.  1996 Aug; 64(4): 712-723. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8803361/ ; Freedy, John R. (MD, PhD), Simpson, W.M. (MD) Disaster-Related Physical and Mental Health:  A Role for the Family Physician.  American Family Physician.  2007 Mar 15:75(6): 841-846.  Available online at https://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0315/p841.html 

[iii] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813  

[iv] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 

[v] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 

[vi] Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 

[vii] Paul, L.A., Felton, J.W., Adams, A.W., Welsh, K., Miller, S., Ruggiero, K.J.  Mental Health Among Adolescents Exposed to a Tornado:  The Influence of Social Support and its Interactions with Socio-Demographic Characteristics and Disaster Exposure.  Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2015 Jun; 28(3): 232-239.  Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465037/   The authors note that youth are at particular risk for postdisaster distress because they are less equipped to cope with disasters than adults due to less well-developed coping skills and social and materials resources, citing Garnefski, N., Legerstee, J., Kraaij, V., van den Kommer, T., Teerds, J.  Cognitive coping strategies and symptoms of depression and anxiety:  A comparison between adolescents and adults.  Journal of Adolescence.  2002; 25: 603-611. See also Alonzo, B. What Are the Long-Term Effects of Tornadoes? Sciencing. Available online at https://sciencing.com/longterm-effects-tornadoes-12321830.html. ; Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 ; La Greca, A., Silverman, W.K., Vernberg, E.M., Prinstein, M.J.  Symptoms of posttraumatic stress in children after Hurricane Andrew:  a prospective study.  Journal of Consulting Clinial Psychology.  1996 Aug; 64(4): 712-23.  Available online at  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8803361 

[viii] Phifer, James F.  Psychological distress and somatic symptoms after natural disaster:  Differential vulnerability among older adults.  Psychology and Aging, Vol. 5(3), September 1990, 412-420.  Available online at http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1991-01336-001. 

[ix] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 

[x] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 

[xi] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 

[xii] See Galea, S., Nandi, A, and Vlahov, D.  The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Disasters.  Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 78-91.  Available online at https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/27/1/78/520813 

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