Canadian anxiety approaches 2020 levels as pandemic continues

Canadians’ self-reported anxiety and depression are approaching levels not seen since May 2020, indicating that the Omicron wave has significantly impacted the mental health and well-being of many as we enter the third year of the pandemic.

The data comes from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health’s 9th National Survey with tech company Delvinia on COVID-19 and the mental health of Canadians, conducted January 7-11 — the final planned survey of its kind.

The survey, which asked about 1,000 Canadians across the country about mental health measures such as anxiety, depression and substance use, found that a quarter of respondents felt moderate to severe levels of anxiety, and 22 percent reported feeling depressed sometimes or most of the time in the previous week. It also found that more than a quarter of the participants engaged in excessive drinking.

For Dr Hayley Hamilton, chief scientist at the CAMH Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, the hospital’s findings closely mimic results from May 2020, when CAMH conducted its first survey measuring the impact of COVID on the mental health of Canadians.

“In May 2020, we were very worried about what was going to happen, and we weren’t very sure about the virus and what it actually means,” Hamilton said. “We still see that high level of anxiety, but in this case, it could be more frustration, more tired feeling from this and wanting to get out.”

“People are wondering, when will this end?”

The CAMH survey found that women and frontline workers struggle disproportionately, with both groups reporting significant increases in levels of anxiety and feelings of depression from July 2021 – the last time this survey was conducted.

The results are in line with similar research conducted during December and January. Canadian Mental Health Research, which polled 3,700 Canadians in its 10th survey since the pandemic began, found that 44 percent of participants reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression in mid-December, a higher rate for health care workers.

In an Angus Reid survey on Monday, one in three Canadians said they struggle with their mental health, and half feel tired due to the appearance of the Omicron variant.

Doctors have noted such fatigue and anxiety as Dr. David Gratzer, a psychiatrist at CAMH, who said his patients have felt like they’ve been “pulled the rug out” in the past few weeks. Some are still dealing with financial instability and loss of income, he added.

“The stressors are very real,” Gratzer said, especially for those with pre-existing psychological problems. “It’s about finance, employment, and economic security.”

Gratzer, like other doctors, said he’s noticed that more of his patients are drinking or turning to other substances to deal with. He said his concern is that people’s resilience is waning as they enter their third year under the weight of the shocks associated with the pandemic.

“One of the unique aspects of the pandemic is that, unlike life’s stresses that come and go, this pandemic has been sitting in the minds of many Canadians for months,” Gratzer said. “…the majority of people should be fine, but over time, resilience can decline.”

While mental health has received a renewed focus in terms of government funding and policy changes, some respondents in both the CAMH survey in January and the Mental Health Research Canada Survey in December say they were unable to access needed mental health support.

CAMH found that 24 percent of respondents said they needed mental health services to deal with the pandemic in the past 12 months, but were unable to receive them. MHRC found that one-fifth of Canadians were getting support, but for those who didn’t, 36 percent said they couldn’t afford it.

The rate at which people are still struggling with COVID-19 signals there is a greater need for services, Gratzer said. While minor problems can be resolved with short-term online treatment options, other people may need intensive care that includes medication and psychotherapy — the latter often being expensive.

“We need to understand that the need itself varies, and therefore there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” Gratzer said. “We will need to build community resources, but we will need to build extensive services as well, and this response will not only be needed over the coming weeks, but perhaps in 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 fully planned surveys.

“This is our last planned survey, and we hope it will be” the last, chief scientist Hamilton said, but the hospital is not ruling out similar research in the future.

Hamilton said the data collected about the pandemic helped shed light on the broader mental health challenges posed by COVID-19, and the findings were sent to policy makers to inform decisions about relief from the pandemic and beyond.

Above all, she said, these findings are also a reminder to people that they are not struggling alone.

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