The COVID-19 pandemic’s surging second wave is intensifying feelings of stress and anxiety, according to new data from the Canadian Mental Health Association and UBC researchers.
Indeed, 40% of Canadians surveyed said their mental health has deteriorated since March when restrictions began in an attempt to contain the virus. As well, there are increasing concerns about suicidal thinking.
And, say researchers, the pandemic has shone the light on a dysfunctional Canadian mental health system.
“Cold weather, uncertainty, eroded social networks and restrictions on holiday gatherings are hitting at a time when people are already anxious, hopeless and fearful that things are going to get worse,” association CEO Margaret Eaton said. “I am afraid that many people are in such despair that they can’t see past it.”
As of Dec. 2, B.C. recorded 469 deaths from the virus, with 834 new infections announced for the previous 24-hour period. The province has detected a total of 34,728 COVID-19 infections since the first case was discovered on January 28. Most of those who have been infected, or 24,424 people, have recovered.
As of Nov. 30, there had been 1,173,931 tests done in B.C.
Nationally, there have been 14,971,075 tests. There have been 393,070 cases, 12,369 deaths and 312,409 recoveries nationwide as of Nov. 30.
Survey data indicates “alarming levels of despair, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness in the Canadian population,” researchers found.
Some 71% expressed worries about the virus’ second wave, with 58% worried about a loved one or family member dying. Only 21% were feeling hopeful.
Of those reporting a mental health decline, researchers found it to be more pronounced in the unemployed (61%), those with a pre-existing mental health issue (61%), those aged 18-24 (60%), Indigenous peoples (54%), people identifying as LGBTQ2+ (54%) and those with a disability (50%).
By gender, almost 45% of women and 34% of men said their mental health has declined.
Related research has found quarantine and isolation has also had significant impacts on Canadians’ mental health.
Researchers said a sharp increase in suicidality through the fall is of concern. They found one in 10 Canadians have been experiencing recent thoughts or feelings of suicide, up from six per cent in the spring and 2.5 per cent throughout pre-pandemic 2016.
Results indicated suicidal thoughts and feelings are even higher in various subgroups of the population, including those who identify as LGBTQ2+ (28%), with existing mental illness or mental health issues (27%), with a disability (24%), aged 25-34 (21%) and 18-24 (19%) and who are Indigenous (20%).
As Canadians have become more isolated, many have voiced concerns about their mental health, an October report from the non-profit Angus Reid Institute said.
However, while the suicide rate is currently lower than previous years, research released in November showed Canadians aren’t reaching out for Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) pandemic health services as much as they could.
UBC professor of nursing and lead researcher Emily Jenkins said data indicates a direct relationship between social stressors and declining mental health.
“As the pandemic wears on and cases and related restrictions rise, a good proportion of our population is suffering,” Jenkins said. “Particularly concerning are the levels of suicidal thinking and self-harm, which have increased exponentially since before the pandemic and are further magnified in certain sub-groups of the population who were already experiencing stigma, exclusion, racism and discrimination.”
A third of Canadians (39%) are worried about finances, with half of parents with children under 18 (48%) and those with a household income of less than $25,000 (51%) reporting financial concerns due to COVID-19. Especially as potential school closures loom, parents are under pressure, with 13% experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, one quarter (27%) worried about putting food on the table and one fifth (18%) concerned about being safe from physical or emotional domestic violence.
How Canadians are coping is also concerning, and some coping tools are possibly making situations worse.
“It’s encouraging that half of Canadians are exercising outdoors as a way to cope with the pandemic, but only 11% are accessing virtual mental health services or supports. More are turning to alcohol or substances to get through,” UBC School of Population and Public Health professor and co-lead researcher Anne Gadermann said.
About 17% reported an increased use of substances as a way to cope. Some 20% have increased alcohol use, while many have also increased their use of other substances, including cannabis (9%) and prescription medication (7%). Population subgroups indicated even higher substance-use rates.
Researchers said the pandemic “keeps underlining that mental health is not an individual responsibility, and that policy-level interventions are required.”
They expressed concerns that even pre-pandemic Canada’s mental health care system is not meeting people’s needs due to long waitlists, access issues, inequity and underfunding.
“Lengthy wait times are a problem, in part, because there has been a chronic underfunding of community-based mental health services and a reliance on intensive, high-cost services like hospitals and acute care,” Eaton said. “If we fund community-level interventions, this will alleviate pressure on an acute-care system already hit hard by COVID-19 – and get people the help they need sooner.”
The survey was done by Maru/Matchbox from Sept. 14-21, 2020, with a representative sample of 3,027 Canadians ages 18 and over.
If you or someone near you is experiencing mental health issues, help is available:
• Find your local CMHA
• Reach Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or kidshelpphone.ca
• Thinking of suicide? Call 1-833-456-4566 (in Quebec: 1-866-277-3553) or visit crisisservicescanada.ca
• The province has also worked with Foundry Youth Centres, the Canadian Mental Health Association – BC Division, the B.C. Psychological Association and others to deliver expanded mental health services.
• In an emergency, please call 9-1-1 or visit your nearest emergency department.