Many Canadians happy, but mental health flatlines or worse for some, new data shows

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February 2023 data from Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC) shows the mental stability of Canadians has flatlined since the summer of 2022.

As vaccinations became available and social distancing measures were eased, the mental health of Canadians showed some improvement, but new MHRC data shows Canadians’ mental health has plateaued, and in some cases, gotten worse.

Since the first such survey in April 2020, the organization has asked 40,000 Canadians questions about their mental health. The latest poll (#15) was conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights from Jan. 23 to Feb. 3, with a sample of 3,238 adult Canadians.

Overall, the MHRC data shows a majority of Canadians are happy (81 per cent), but for those who reported feeling anxious and depressed, their mental health is not getting better.

In all 15 polls, the MHRC measures responses on the same key mental health indicators, including levels of anxiety, depression, symptoms of burnout, and stress.

“Although they’ve improved (mental health indicators), we’ve noticed a bit of a flatline the last few polls where those numbers have really not dropped back down to pre-pandemic levels,” Dr. David Dozois, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Western University told CTVNews.ca in an interview on Mar. 1.

Dozois, who is a board member for MHRC, works with the organization to expand information on the impacts on Canadians’ mental well-being.

From April 2020 to early summer 2022, when COVID-19 pandemic public health restrictions were in place, Canadians countrywide reported skyrocketing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“Right at the beginning of COVID we asked people what their mental health was, and 5 to 7 per cent of people experienced high to extremely high anxiety. That quadrupled to 20 per cent,” Dozois said.

Depression increased dramatically, too, says Dozois. While about 4 to 6 per cent of Canadians said they experienced severe depression before the pandemic , the MHRC noted that increased to about 10 per cent at the onset of the pandemic.

Dozois said, when COVID-19 became a part of everyone’s lives, it “triggered” anxiety in many people.

“(The pandemic) sort of primed or activated people’s belief system that ‘Wow, we’re threatened here.’ And whenever we perceive a threat, there’s anxiety,” he said.

CANADIANS’ MENTAL HEALTH HAS FLATLINED

The survey’s margin of error is +/- 1.7 per cent. Researchers gathered data from all the provinces, with varying margin errors, but no data from the territories due to small population sizes.

The survey asks about respondents’ anxiety, depression levels, and feelings of burnout which include feeling hopeful and how a person is coping with stress.

Levels of high anxiety (10 per cent) and depression (8 per cent) have remained constant, the survey found.

“I often talk about it (anxiety) like a fire alarm,” Dozois said, suggesting an explanation for anxiety persisting even as the pandemic threat recedes. “If we pulled a fire alarm in the building, it’ll ring just as loud whether there’s a true fire there or not… So even though there may not be the same objective threat there, if there’s a perception of threat our bodies will kick off a false response.”

The survey found about 1 in 7 Canadians are likely to have moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety, with 1 in 5 likely to have symptoms of severe to moderate depression.

Using two clinical screeners for anxiety and depression, researchers were able to determine the number of Canadians likely to be experiencing symptoms of anxiety (14 per cent) and depression (11 per cent).

About 24 per cent of participants reported feelings of burnout, including about 14 per cent who said they are not “coping with stress well.” The two indicators have stayed the same from the previous survey MHRC collected in November 2022.

The latest MHRC also shows the number of Canadians accessing mental health services increased in 2022.

The poll indicates fewer people are accessing publicly funded psychologists (-8 per cent), psychotherapists (-4 per cent), online services (-8 per cent) and text-based supports (-9 per cent).

Instead, more people (+19 per cent) are using mental health support provided by family doctors and health services.

For services funded privately, the survey notes fewer are seeing psychologists (-3 per cent) and psychotherapists (-4 per cent), with more accessing counsellors and social workers (+12 per cent).

WHAT IS CAUSING POOR MENTAL HEALTH

Among Canadians accessing care, the reasons reported to MHRC for their poor mental health are predominantly related to the economy and prospect of a recession.

According to the survey, half of Canadians indicated that inflation is not having a negative impact on their lives. But among the 50 per cent of respondents who reported being affected by inflation, their mental health is much worse.

Respondents who are stressed by inflation and are worried about financial insecurity reported higher levels of anxiety (33 per cent), depression (32 per cent) and mood disorder diagnoses since the pandemic (14 per cent).

They also had higher levels of suicide ideation (31 per cent), alcohol (23 per cent) or cannabis dependency (22 per cent) and were not able to handle their stress (30 per cent).

“I wonder if we’re replacing one problem with another,” Dozois said.

Worries about paying bills and food insecurity (36 per cent) have remained stable since summer 2022 (poll #13), while an increased number of people are concerned about the ability to pay for housing (20 per cent).

Dozois says certain segments of the population are affected disproportionately.

“For example, we know that, parents – women, in particular, with children who are under the age of nine – are experiencing more anxiety and depression… (as are) members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, as well as people who are unemployed.”

Of the Canadians polled, racialized Canadians (13 per cent) and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community (16 per cent) reported higher levels of anxiety and are also more likely to report experiencing high levels of depression.

Respondents between the ages of 18 and 35 years old (13 per cent), students (15 per cent), and people with low income (15 per cent) are more likely to report high levels of anxiety.

A small improvement has been made since July, however, with fewer Canadians now fearing job loss (39 per cent).

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE

Despite some indications of improving mental health among many Canadians, Dozois remains concerned.

“There is a smaller proportion of people who are vulnerable,” Dozois said. “That sector has been vulnerable prior to COVID, I think COVID has just exacerbated the problem and made things worse.”

With the MHRC data showing a third of Canadians accessing help through publicly funded institutions, which often have long wait lists, Dozois wants to see more accessible opportunities for treatment and support.

“We need really do need to make mental health front and centre in the minds of Canadians and in our provincial and federal governments,” he said. “A significant investment is needed to help increase access to mental health care.”

With decades of experience in psychology and psychiatry, Dozois wants to see a major shift.

“I think mental health care has really been on the sidelines for far too long… (It’s) called the orphan of health care, which is a sad statement,” he said. “And I think, unfortunately, we’re still there. We have a lot more to do to make evidence-based practice in Canada available and accessible.” 

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