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How COVID Affected Canadians’ Mental Health

Many people already struggling were pushed to the edge, a new study finds.

Moira Wyton 24 Aug

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

[Editor’s note: This article discusses suicide and suicidal ideation. It may be triggering to some readers.]

Nearly one in five Canadians with serious mental health difficulties have contemplated suicide since the pandemic began, according to a new study from Statistics Canada.

That’s about five times more than the 4.3 per cent of people with moderate mental health difficulties. Less than one per cent of people with no mental health challenges considered suicide in the same time frame.

Concerns of rising suicide rates due to pandemic anxiety and isolation brought on by COVID-19 public health measures haven’t come true, according to multiple studies. Some even suggest the suicide rate has declined.

But the percentage of Canadians experiencing suicidal thoughts has risen from 2.7 to 4.2 per cent since 2019, according to an earlier spring study from Statistics Canada.

And the number of Canadians with high self-rated mental health has decreased during the pandemic from 67 per cent in 2019 to 58 per cent between late 2021 and early 2022.

Thursday’s findings show those already struggling have disproportionately borne the negative mental health impacts of the pandemic, including suicidal ideation.

“The percentage of people who had experienced suicidal ideation didn't change all that much from pre-pandemic to during the pandemic,” said Michelle Guerrero, an analyst at Statistics Canada and lead author of the paper.

“But what our study really highlighted is that this number drastically changes depending on your mental health difficulties.”

The study is based on the Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health, which heard from over 23,000 adults in late 2020 and early 2021.

About two thirds of respondents didn’t have any mental health difficulties, while about a quarter had low-to-moderate difficulties and 8.8 per cent had severe challenges.

Guerrero and co-author Joel Barnes sought to understand how people in these three profiles fared during the pandemic.

Their findings noted that once someone had self-reported symptoms of one mental health difficulty, such as anxiety, they were more likely to report another, like depression or psychological distress.

“Many mental disorders commonly coexist and an increased risk of comorbidity of mental disorders is the norm, not the exception,” reads the study.

“Comorbidity of mental disorders amplifies an individual’s vulnerability.”

Negative impacts on mental health were also felt across classes, genders, ages and races.

But those most severely affected tended to be Black, Indigenous, younger or lower income people; women or people of colour.

“Severe” impacts include self-reported loneliness, loss of job or income, difficulty meeting needs and physical health problems in addition to suicidal ideation.

Previous studies have shown that the pandemic has “hammered” the mental health of marginalized, racialized and LGBTQ2SIA+ people, who already face higher levels of mental health issues due to racism and discrimination.

Thursday’s study also indicates that people older than 65 were somewhat cushioned from some of the negative mental health impacts that younger and more precariously employed or housed people experienced.

“Most older people perhaps are retired and so they're not experiencing that level of financial stress or difficulty that young people are,” said Guerrero.

Parents of young children were more likely to report emotional distress, tension with family members and difficulty meeting their family and financial obligations than people without children.

But parents were less likely to report suicidal ideation than their non-parenting peers.

While their paper could not assess the causes of many of these links, Guerrero and Barnes say their study suggests public health efforts towards preventing and responding to suicide ideation need to prioritize people with multiple diagnoses and challenges.

And when talking about the mental health impacts of the pandemic, it’s important to be clear who has been most affected.

“When we talk about the impact of the pandemic on people's lives, we really need to be specific on who we're talking about, because 65 per cent of our sample experienced no mental health difficulties, and they said they were okay,” said Guerrero.

“But for people who had mental health difficulties, it has been a very different experience.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Coronavirus

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