Canadians’ self-reported anxiety and depression are nearing levels not seen since May 2020, signalling the Omicron wave has taken a significant toll on the mental health and wellbeing of many as we enter the third year of the pandemic.
The data comes from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s ninth national survey with technology company Delvinia on COVID-19 and the mental health of Canadians, conducted Jan. 7-11 — the final planned survey of its kind.
The survey, which asked around 1,000 Canadians nationwide about mental health metrics like anxiety, depression and substance use, found a quarter of respondents felt moderate to severe anxiety levels, and 22 per cent reported feeling depressed occasionally or most of the time in the previous week. It also found more than a quarter of participants are engaging in binge drinking.
For Dr. Hayley Hamilton, a senior scientist at CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, the hospital’s findings closely mimic results from May 2020, when CAMH conducted its first survey measuring COVID’s impact on Canadians’ mental health.
“In May 2020, we were very worried about what’s to come, we were very uncertain about the virus and what it actually meant,” Hamilton said. “We now still see that high level of anxiety, but in this case, it might be more frustration, more of a feeling of being tired of this and wanting to get out.”
“People are wondering, when is this going to end?”
The CAMH survey found women and front-line workers are disproportionately struggling, with both groups reporting significant increases of anxiety levels and feelings of depression from July 2021 — the last time this survey was conducted.
The findings are in line with similar research conducted over December and January. Mental Health Research Canada, which surveyed 3,700 Canadians in its 10th poll since the pandemic began, found 44 per cent of respondents reported having symptoms of anxiety and depression in mid-December, and that rate is higher for health-care workers.
In an Angus Reid survey released Monday, one in three Canadians said they are struggling with mental health, and half feel fatigued due to the emergence of the Omicron variant.
This fatigue and worry has been observed by clinicians like Dr. David Gratzer, a psychiatrist at CAMH, who said his patients have felt like “the rug has been pulled from underneath them” in the last few weeks. Some, he added, are still dealing with financial uncertainty and loss of income.
“The stresses are very real,” Gratzer said, especially for those with pre-existing mental health problems. “They’re about finances, employment, economic security.”
Like other doctors, Gratzer said he has noticed more of his patients are drinking or turning to other substances to cope. His worry, he said, is that people’s resilience is waning as they enter a third year under the weight of pandemic-related trauma.
“One aspect of the pandemic that is unique is that, as opposed to life stressors that come and go, this one has been sitting on many Canadians’ minds for months now,” Gratzer said. “ … the majority of people should be OK, but over time, resilience can be ground down.”
While mental health has received a renewed focus in terms of government funding and policy changes, some respondents to both January’s CAMH survey and December’s Mental Health Research Canada survey say they’ve been unable to access needed mental health support.
CAMH found 24 per cent of respondents said they needed mental health services to cope with the pandemic in the last 12 months, but were unable to receive them. MHRC found that one-fifth of Canadians were accessing support, but for those who weren’t, 36 per cent said they couldn’t afford them.
Gratzer said the rate at which people are still struggling due to COVID-19 signals there is a greater need for services. While minor problems can be helped by short-term online therapy options, other people may need intensive care involving medication and psychotherapy — the latter of which is often costly.
“We need to understand that need itself varies, and so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” Gratzer said. “We’ll need to build up community resources, but we’ll need to build up intensive services as well, and that response isn’t going to be needed just over the coming weeks, but potentially over the coming months or even years.”
Like others in the field, CAMH began surveying Canadians early in the pandemic, to understand the impact on people’s emotional well-being, with nine planned surveys altogether.
“This is our last planned survey, and we hope it is” the last, senior scientist Hamilton said, but the hospital is not ruling out similar research in the future.
Hamilton said the data collected over the pandemic helped shed light on the broader mental health challenges COVID-19 has brought on, and findings have been sent to policy makers to inform decisions related to pandemic relief and beyond.
Above all, she said those findings are also a reminder to people that they are not struggling alone.
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