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Despair and suicidal feelings deepen as pandemic wears on

New nationwide survey finds Ontarians’ mental health eroding

The second wave of the pandemic has intensified feelings of stress and anxiety, causing alarming levels of despair, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness in the Ontario population. This, according to the newest wave of data collected through a nationwide monitoring survey on the mental health impacts of COVID-19, released today by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in partnership with UBC researchers.

Most people in Ontario (75%) indicate they’re worried about the second wave of the virus, with 62% worried about a loved one or family member dying, and only 20% feeling hopeful. As winter approaches, 44% of Ontarians say their mental health has deteriorated since March. Nearly half of Ontarians (40%) are worried about finances, and 27% of parents with children under 18 are worried about having enough food to meet their families’ needs.

“Cold weather, uncertainty, eroded social networks and restrictions on holiday gatherings are hitting at a time when people are already anxious, hopeless and fearful that things are going to get worse,” says CMHA’s National CEO, Margaret Eaton. “I am afraid that many people are in such despair that they can’t see past it.”

Of great concern is the sharp increase in suicidality this fall, with 1 in 10 Canadians (10%) experiencing recent thoughts or feelings of suicide, up from six per cent in the spring and 2.5 per cent throughout pre-pandemic 2016.

“We are seeing a direct relationship between social stressors and declining mental health,” says lead researcher Emily Jenkins, a professor of nursing at UBC who studies mental health and substance use. “As the pandemic wears on and cases and related restrictions rise, a good proportion of our population is suffering. Particularly concerning are the levels of suicidal thinking and self-harm, which have increased exponentially since before the pandemic and are further magnified in certain sub-groups of the population who were already experiencing stigma, exclusion, racism and discrimination.”

Unfortunately, few Ontarians are getting mental health services and supports they need, while many are relying on a combination of healthy and unhealthy strategies to cope.

Nearly 1 in 5 (20%) have indicated that they have increased their use of substances as a way to cope. One fifth of people (22%) in Ontario have increased alcohol use, while many have also increased their use of other substances, including cannabis (12%) and prescription medication (8%).

The pandemic keeps underlining that mental health is not an individual responsibility, and that policy-level interventions are required. Even before the pandemic, the mental health care system in Canada was not meeting people’s needs due to long waitlists, access issues, inequity and underfunding.

“The pandemic has accelerated the need for people to easily access mental health and addiction care using community-based services.  We appreciate the investments the provincial governments are making in particular to help those most vulnerable.  However, historic underfunding means that there are increased pressures and more comprehensive investments are required, especially as the pandemic continues to take its toll on all of us.” says Rebecca Shields, CMHA York Region & South Simcoe CEO.

“I would also strongly encourage anyone in our community who may be experiencing stress or low mood related to Covid-19 to call our supportive counselling telephone line. It is completely free and confidential, with no waiting period. A call today could prevent worsening mental health symptoms in the future,” Shields says.

The counselling line operates 8.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday, and can be reached by calling 1866-345-0183.

The survey was dispatched by Maru/Matchbox from September 14-21, 2020 to a representative sample of 3,027 people ages 18 and up living in Canada. The Ontario sample was 1137.

It is the second of three strategic waves of national surveying that is also aligned with work being conducted by the Mental Health Foundation in the U.K.

To access a complete summary of the findings, please click here.

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