What impact has COVID19 had on the mental health of Canadians?

Policymakers around the world have been struggling to keep up with the COVID-19 outbreak since December 2019. In this regard, each country has been trying to organize an effective systematic response to this crisis. In the meantime, the media’s main focus has understandably been on the health consequences of the pandemic with economic issues being a secondary concern. But there are other important areas to shed light on as well which have for the most part been overlooked, such as mental health. 

This prolonged and unprecedented pandemic has resulted in a considerable degree of fear and worry which has had a significant  negative impact on the mental health of citizens all over the world. Canada is no exception to this, as is demonstrated by the fact that over half of the Canadians (52%) that participated in the questionnaire provided by Statistics Canada declared that their mental health has worsened since the physical distancing has started. This article discusses the impacts of the crisis on the mental health of various societal groups due to increased fear of death or sickness, high rate of anxiety and stress, increased workload on health services providers, and addiction. At the end, some opportunities for future governmental actions are mentioned such as the need for more targeted policies and investments instead of general ones and for policies that will deal with the long term consequences of the policy changes that have been implemented during the pandemic.  

Impact of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of Different Groups

Due to the nature of the virus and the rapid growth in the number of cases, physical distancing and self-isolation has been  introduced as the prime strategy to counter COVID-19. However, it is important to consider all the benefits and risks of this strategy. For example, the harms attributed to the social and economic arenas  are significant due to shutting down the non-essential businesses, several job losses and lack of social activities. The United Nations as well as other organizations like WHO, have been warning countries about the possibility of a mental health crisis if no proper precautions are taken to prevent and address the issue.

In this regard, Statistics Canada has made a commitment to monitor the mental health status of Canadians during this unprecedented period. Almost 46000 Canadians were able to participate in the online questionnaire provided between April 24 to May 11, 2020. The results indicate that 24% of participants reported having poor or fair mental health, 31% reported good mental health, and 46% reported very good or excellent mental health. The severity of the situation is clear when it is compared with the previous surveys. According to the Canadian Community Health Survey in 2018, only 8% of Canadians reported their mental health as poor or fair; 24% perceived their mental health to be good, and 69% reported very good or excellent mental health. 

It should be noted that different communities have been suffering from different kinds of mental health issues. So, to get the best outcomes, it is better to address each group separately. The first group, the frontline health care workers, are experiencing immense workloads, increased pressure from making life or death decisions, and of course, increased fear and tension from being at a higher risk of infection. Referring to the article published by WHO on May 14th, 2020, 47% of health care workers have reported a demand for increased mental health support.

Children and adolescents are the next group at great risk of mental health conditions due to the school closures, staying at home policies, and insufficient indoor and outdoor social activities compared to their normal daily routine. During the isolation, experiencing anxiety, very limited peer contact, lack of opportunities for stress regulation, as well as being exposed to the higher risk of parental mental issues, domestic violence, and child maltreatment are some of the factors contributing to mental illness among children. Moreover, the challenges and obstacles that children could face during this time may be more severe if parents need to work from home, or they are experiencing financial pressures due to unemployment, or if they have to go to work during the pandemic. 

Although mental health issues are affecting both men and women during the pandemic, its prevalence among women is higher than men. As evidenced by the data collected through Statistics Canada from April 24 to May 11, 2020, women are experiencing poorer mental health than men during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, while 25.5% of women reported fair or poor mental health, only 21.2% of men reported the same thing. Elders are another group at risk since the social and physical distancing strategy leads to a higher rate of vulnerability and loneliness among elders, especially those who are not comfortable with using smart phones and other technologies which keep people connected socially remotely. Data collected in May 2020 and released in June 2020 by Canadian Mental Health Association states that people with pre-existing mental health issues are also at risk during this tough time as evidenced by the fact that 20% of this group report experiencing suicidal tendencies during this pandemic.

Another concerning issue during the pandemic, is an increase in alcohol consumption. The results of a national survey delivered by Statistics Canada reveal a 19% increase in the weekly alcohol consumption of 15 to 54-year-old Canadians during the first phase of the pandemic. The majority of health professionals believe that this issue could have been controlled if Canada had not considered the alcohol retailers as essential businesses, especially during the early stages of the lock-down. In addition, creation of new channels of delivering alcohol to the public with less physical contact, has facilitated the alcohol usage during the lock-down. It is worth emphasizing that the increase in alcohol consumption causes related harms such as injury, interpersonal violence and addiction. 

Government Response 

The government’s response to mental health concerns during COVID-19 outbreak was the investment of 240.5 million dollars in May 2020 to develop, expand and launch the virtual care and mental health tools to support Canadians. This investment has been mainly aimed at creating digital platforms and applications to provide virtual mental health services and expanding the existing capacity to deliver virtual healthcare. For instance, since May 19th 2020 the community-based organizations that serve the vulnerable population have been able to apply for funding for various supporting activities including virtual contact through phone calls, internet or teleconferences instead of in-person contact and social gathering. 

The three principal platforms created for this purpose are Wellness Together Canada (the online portal that helps Canadians connect with psychologists, social workers and other related health professionals to address their mental health issues and also enables them to find accredited and updated mental health information), Canada COVID-19 (a mobile application for tracking the symptoms and also self-assessing tools), and Get Updates on COVID-19 (a web-based email service that allow subscribers to have access to the government’s updates regarding the pandemic). Although more than 150,00 Canadians accessed the Wellness Together Canada service in the first three weeks that it launched, it is too soon to provide firm feedback on these new services. While their effects and usefulness need to be studied in the long term, it is possible that these programs could serve as stepping stones toward stronger platforms to expand virtual mental health care in general.  

Additionally, in July 2020, Prime Minister Trudeau announced an investment of over 19 million dollars to help and support provinces and territories to safely restart their economies through the Safe Restart Agreement over the next six to eight months. A part of this investment is dedicated to the mental health service providers to support people seeking help. Moreover, reopening the businesses and breaking isolation can be a help to boost the mental health of citizens, as this can be a positive sign of gradually returning to normal routines and also it can help reduce financial pressures.

Opportunities for Future Governmental Action

Although the government of Canada has made reasonable attempts toward combating this  issue and have also tried empathizing with people at all levels, there are some points that should be considered by policy and decision makers during and after the pandemic. First, it seems that most mental health policies so far have not been geared towards the specific needs of different targeted groups who, are suffering from different types of mental health problems. In this regard, more specific policies and investments that are geared towards each group’s specific needs are required. Second, although it is so difficult to predict the exact long-term impacts and how long this pandemic will last, it is  important to modify the regulations if the changes turn out to be the new normal after the pandemic. For example, as mentioned above there are new channels to facilitate the purchase of alcohol. If this new regulation does not get reversed or modified after a pandemic it may cause a continued increase in alcohol consumption due to a higher level of public access to alcohol. 

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.

Mina Mahdavi
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Mina holds a Master’s degree in Engineering and Public Policy from McMaster University. She is mainly interested in working on Canada's public policy issues, specifically health policy. She is currently a policy researcher in STAND Canada and is also translating a health policy book from English to Farsi.

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