Albertans report greatest increase of stress as Canadians’ mental health plummets

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Canadians’ mental health continued to decline in November for the eighth consecutive month, according to the results of a Morneau Shepell survey.

The index also found the greatest increase in stress month over month was for respondents living in Alberta (61.2), followed by Saskatchewan (60.1) and Manitoba (59.7).

“Alberta started out having the lowest mental health score of all the provinces,” explained Morneau Shepell’s Paula Allen.

Economic challenges — which negatively affect mental health — put many Albertans in a vulnerable place even before COVID-19, she said.

Like many other provinces, Alberta saw lower mental health in the spring, a little bump up in September and then a decline in November as more cases were reported and some regions went into lockdowns.

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“Albertans, over the last little while… there’s been a bit of resistance to change behaviour broadly, in response to the pandemic, in comparison to other provinces,” Allen told Global News.

“The realization of escalating cases is a factor that says: ‘We’re not just going to power through this. It’s not a matter of resilience.'”

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Morneau Shepell, which provides human resources services, surveyed the same 3,000 employed Canadians each month and compared their mental health status with benchmarks collected in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

The November results of the Mental Health Index were published Wednesday, showing a 11.1-point drop from the pre-pandemic benchmark of 75.

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The survey found this decrease was “in large part due to a significant decline in psychological health, which reached its lowest point since the inception of the Index in April 2020.”

“Psychological health is deteriorating,” Allen said. “That has been declining throughout the pandemic and that’s one of the most concerning findings.”

The survey found some of the biggest factors in mental health levels were feelings of anxiety, depression, lethargy, hopelessness, burnout, isolation and feelings around psychological health.

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The findings saw provincial mental health scores since April generally improve until July, when several regions saw steady declines from July to August.

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From September to November, Alberta and Manitoba saw steady declines, while British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador saw improvements, the index showed.

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Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes all saw declines from September to October, but November brought modest improvements, the survey revealed. Saskatchewan saw a sharp decline in November, which corresponds with a jump in COVID-19 cases in that province, the report found.

A score of zero in the Mental Health Index reflects no change, positive scores reflect improvement, and negative scores reflect decline. The Mental Stress Change score (zero to 100) compares the current to the prior month. A score of 50 reflects no change in mental stress from the prior month. Scores above 50 reflect an increase in mental stress, scores below 50 reflect a decrease in mental stress.

“The mental health index measures where we are versus where we were prior to 2020,” Allen said “Are we doing better or are we doing worse?”

The mental stress change score measures “the mental strain people are experiencing compared to prior month.”

Before the pandemic, surveys would see about the same percentage of respondents experience more stress as those who experienced less stress.

“We haven’t seen that during the pandemic at all,” Allen said.

Reported stress has been getting “consistently higher” since April, which means Canadians are building up stress over this time, Allen explained.

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She added stress impacts how the human brain functions.

Peaks of stress are OK, Allen explained, but only if it returns to a normal level and we’re able to balance out the peaks with restorative activities like physical fitness, laughter, time with family and friends. Many of those things aren’t possible during a pandemic and lockdown.

“If you don’t have that balance… it makes you more vulnerable for long-term disorders.”

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Allen said if intervention doesn’t happen now, more Canadians will experience mental disorders, the most common of which are depression and anxiety. Eating disorders also become more prevalent during times of isolation, and risky drinking behaviours and other substance issues can also become more common.

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Allen said the pandemic triggered many people who were already at higher risk of mental health, anxiety or stress issues.

“We’ve seen a 30 per cent increase in our crisis line for people with suicidal ideation during the pandemic.”

There are resources available and many provinces have been making supports more accessible in light of the pandemic.

Virtual addiction and mental health supports are available to Albertans as are other resources through Alberta Health Services. Togetherall is a clinically moderated, online peer-to-peer mental health community that is open 24/7 and free for all Albertans over 16 years old. Albertans can also use the Crisis Text Line (Text CONNECT to 741741).

On Friday, the Opposition NDP called on the provincial government to launch “a simple online tool to help Albertans assess their mental health needs and then connect them to five provincially insured sessions with a registered healthcare provider.

“Using the provincial healthcare plan means no out-of-pocket costs for anyone with a provincial health number,” the NDP said in a news release.

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The Opposition said the cost would depend on the uptake, but the party recommended the government commit up to $100 million.

Ontario and Manitoba have made therapy free for residents through Morneau Shepell’s The same virtual cognitive behavioral therapy can be accessed by people in other provinces and, while it’s not free, it is much more affordable than traditional therapy.

“It’s very effective and very practical,” Allen said of CBT. “It helps people see situations in a realistic way… develop skills of how to deal with emotions, understand how it effects their behaviour,” and encouraging active managing of those emotions and reactions, thus bringing back a sense of control.

Another perk of this type of therapy? “It’s very effectively delivered in an online format,” Allen said.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

Albertans can access services by calling the Mental Health Helpline 1-877-303-2642 or visiting The Addiction Helpline is 1-866-332-2322. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or is involved in an abusive situation, please visit the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime for help. They are also reachable toll-free at 1-877-232-2610.

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