Mental health and COVID-19: Here’s why the pandemic was harder on struggling Canadians

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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on Canadians across the nation over the past couple of years but those with mental health struggles have been impacted far more, a recent report from Statistics Canada shows.

“Certainly everybody has suffered, but some people have suffered more than others,” Cheryl Forchuk, university professor at Western University and assistant scientific director at Lawson Health Research Institute, told Global News.

The question to ask here is why, says Forchuk.

“Why did people with pre-existing mental health problems fare worse?”

The answer can be found in “social determinants,” like income, work and poverty, according to Forchuk.

People with mental health struggles are “much more vulnerable to these problems,” she said.

“A lot of their worrying and mental health (are) very much related to financial issues, losing income … Now, that’s true across the board for Canadians, but for people with pre-existing mental health problems, this is a greater problem in terms of (coping) compared to the general population that do not have mental health problems,” she added.

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Authored by Michelle D. Guerrero and Joel D. Barnes of Statistics Canada’s Health Analysis Division, the report, released Thursday, surveyed 22,721 adults 18 and older.

Individuals were classified into three mental health profiles — no mental health difficulties, low-to-moderate mental health difficulties and severe mental health difficulties.

Those with low, moderate and severe difficulties experienced “emotional distress; the death of a family member, friend or colleague; difficulty in meeting financial obligations or essential needs; the loss of a job or income and feelings of loneliness or isolation” at greater odds than those with no mental health difficulties.

This was also true for physical health problems and challenges in personal relationships with household members, among other impacts.

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Those 65 and older were overall at a lower chance of experiencing emotional distress and difficulty meeting financial obligations or needs. Parents are at a higher chance of experiencing these challenges.

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Difficulty in meeting financial obligations was more likely to be reported for Canadians who identified as a visible minority, the study said.

“There’s vulnerability around income status, worry about work, worry about poverty. It’s quite understandable why this population has been more seriously impacted than the general population,” Forchuk explained.

“We know that some of our northern communities, some of our Indigenous communities, some people living in poverty … often don’t have access to (mental health support).”

“So, I think part of what we need to do is rethink how we handle that situation,” she said.

Two-thirds, or over 65 per cent, of Canadian adults were classified as having no mental health difficulties.

Over 25 per cent were classified as having low-to-moderate mental health difficulties and nearly nine per cent were classified as having severe mental health difficulties.

According to Forchuk, people with mental health problems can come from any socioeconomic status.

“It doesn’t discriminate (between) people who are financially well-off and people living in poverty,” she said.

“Anyone can have a mental health problem and anyone does. But one of the things the literature has already told us is once you have a psychiatric diagnosis, there’s a slide into poverty… Once you have that diagnosis, you’re more likely to… go down. There’s that slippage.”

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Since the start of the pandemic, suicide was more likely to be contemplated by those with low, moderate and severe mental health difficulties compared to those without, the study found.

For those with severe mental health difficulties, one in five contemplated suicide since the pandemic began.

Reaching “out for help” is key for those struggling, stresses Forchuk.

“There are a lot of online supports,” she said. “Connect (with) the local Canadian mental health associations… Most of the local chapters, if you go to your own community, will have (list of resources) where you can find help in your community.”

“They have a lot of self-help tools available on websites… For people who are feeling isolated, peer support organizations and consumer self-help groups are (also) available on 411.”

These are good ways “to boost that social support,” she said. 

Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist of two decades and clinical professor at the University of British Columbia, says finding help for those who need it could take months or even up to a year, such as finding a psychiatrist.

“I’ve never seen such a long list for treatment,” she said. “Even for counselors and therapists, waitlists are eight months or longer.”

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There are routine things Canadians can do to aid their mental health, however, as they await professional help, Kang said.

“There’s a lot of self-care activities that can be helpful. We have many natural antidepressants that can be utilized,” she said.

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These include regular sleeping habits and physical activity, positive socialization, being in nature and a healthy amount of screen time.

“Loneliness is on track for the number one health epidemic of the next generation. Tech is a big part of that, so I just want to highlight healthy tech use limits,” said Kang.

— With files from Aya Al-Hakim

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