North Vancouver cyclist shares message about mental health during COVID-19

Self-isolation and physical distancing are crucial in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, but it’s also important to avoid becoming totally isolated.

That’s the message that Karl Robathan, a North Vancouver resident and mental health advocate, is trying to spread in the hope that people staying home and avoiding situations that could bring them into contact with others aren’t also succumbing to the anxiety-inducing feelings caused by isolation.

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Stress, depression and anxiety have been on Robathan’s mind a lot lately.

A hair dresser by trade, Robathan was compelled to close his salon – alongside all other salons, spas and personal care businesses in B.C. – last month, following a directive from the provincial health officer who made the call as another means to fight the spread of novel coronavirus.

“I was pretty much a mess when I was told and my last client left and we just closed the blinds and shut the lights off. We were just literally shutting the door,” said Robathan. “I came home and I didn’t know what to do. I just got on my bike and just literally went for a ride. I couldn’t believe it.”

Robathan’s brother-in-law, who also owned a hair salon, was also forced to close his shop. And in the early morning hours after the salons were closed last month, Robathan got a call that his brother-in-law had suffered a massive stroke. He eventually passed away.

Heartbroken, Robathan hasn’t been able to see his sister or his mother, who lives in a long-term care facility, in the wake of his brother-in-law’s passing and the shuttering of his business. The tragic events coupled with the imperative to practise social distancing has taken its toll, according to Robathan.

“Obviously being in isolation brings a whole other level of anxiety to the table. If you’re not getting help, the next step is depression,” he says.

In the meantime, he’s continued to ride – and ride and ride – his bike.

Last year Robathan rode his bike for 365 days in a row, tracing a route that usually started in Deep Cove at 4:30 in the morning and ended with him biking out to UBC and back along Lions Gate Bridge and traversing Demonstration Forest Road.

He started a website called ride365.online last year which charted his year of bike rides with photos and personal asides, which talked about his history with anxiety and panic attacks. During the final day of his long biking journey last year, he was joined by a North Vancouver RCMP escort that accompanied him on the final leg of his ride back into Deep Cove.

On the one-year anniversary of completing that project, he decided it was a good idea to revisit the project again as the ongoing pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health. On April 9 Robathan again made his ride from Deep Cove out to UBC.

“When you’re riding, your distance has to be greater,” he notes, but the important thing is to not let social and physical distancing and self-isolation turn into social isolation. “The most important thing to keep in my mind with isolation is to not totally isolate yourself. You can still do activities, you just have to be conscious, aware and safe about them.”

On Thursday, the B.C. government announced a $5 million boost for new and existing mental health programs and services in the province.

A release from the government points to better virtual and online services to help British Columbians deal with their mental health needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the services will include expanding access to free or low-cost community counselling programs, online tools for people to assess and manage their own mental health, and virtual supports for youth aged 12 to 24 through Foundry, the province’s network of youth services and supports. The services offered at Founrdry locations across the province, including one centre in North Vancouver, will now be available by phone, video and chat, according to a press release from the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.

“If you are feeling anxious, stressed, depressed or disconnected because of COVID-19, I want you to know that you are not alone,” stated Premier John Horgan, in the release. “Our government is working to give you more options for mental health support as we all stay home to prevent the spread of the virus.”

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