Pandemic exacts continued toll on mental health—outdoor activity and social connections are helping people cope
The pandemic continues to take an emotional toll on people in Canada, with 77 per cent of adults reporting negative emotions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the latest mental health survey by UBC researchers, in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
The five most common emotional responses to the pandemic across Canada were “worried or anxious,” “bored,” “stressed,” “lonely or isolated” and “sad”, says lead researcher Dr. Emily Jenkins, a professor of nursing at UBC who studies mental health and substance use.
“The pandemic has been incredibly hard for many people,” said Jenkins. “There has been significant loss—of loved ones, of connection, of feelings of security. This can contribute to very challenging emotions and it is important to acknowledge and process.”
The data, released today to mark CMHA’s 70th annual Mental Health Week, was compiled in late January 2021 using a representative sample of 3,037 people ages 18 and older living in Canada.
“While it’s discouraging to think that so many Canadians are feeling upset, difficult emotions may actually be an appropriate response to a major event like a global pandemic,” says Margaret Eaton, national CEO of CMHA. “The good news is, being able to experience a range of emotions is healthy. Recognizing, understanding and processing our feelings—even the uncomfortable ones—is actually a sign of positive mental health.”
Managing emotional responses
The researchers emphasize that good mental health is not about being happy all the time, but having appropriate emotional and behavioural responses to stressors and life events.
However, it’s important to know when anxious feelings become a cause for concern.
“It’s time to seek help if you are feeling overwhelmed for prolonged periods of time or have persistent feelings of worry, anger or despair,” says Dr. Anne Gadermann, co-lead researcher and professor at the school of population and public health at UBC.
“Or, if challenging emotions are interrupting your daily functioning, negatively impacting your relationships, your ability to work or enjoy life or causing you to rely on substances to cope. If you are having thoughts or feelings of suicide, you should seek help for your mental health.”
Mental health challenges
The survey found that those experiencing the most challenging emotions related to the pandemic are also the most likely to report a decline in their mental health as well as suicidal thoughts.
Suicidal thoughts and feelings in the general population remain elevated at eight per cent, compared to six per cent in spring 2020 and 10 per cent in the fall of 2020—substantially higher than the 2.5 per cent observed pre-pandemic in 2016.
Overall, a large number of Canadians (41 per cent) report their mental health has declined since the onset of the pandemic, compared to 38 per cent in the spring and 40 per cent in the fall of last year. Also, consistent with the first and second rounds of data, the decline is more pronounced in those who are unemployed due to COVID-19 (61 per cent), younger aged 18-24 (50 per cent), students (48 per cent), those who identify as LGBTQ2+ (46 per cent) those with a pre-existing mental health condition (54 per cent) and those with a disability (47 per cent).
Exercise and social ties help
Canadians also report they have increased their screen time (57 per cent), are consuming more food (28 per cent), are doing more online shopping for things they don’t need (18 per cent), and are using more substances like drugs and alcohol due to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic (13 per cent).
The good news is most Canadians (79 per cent) say they are coping at least fairly well with the stress of the pandemic, using approaches such as: walking or exercising outside (51 per cent), connecting with family and friends virtually (43 per cent), maintaining a healthy lifestyle (40 per cent), keeping up to date with relevant information (38 per cent) and doing a hobby (37 per cent).
“Investments in mental health are more important than ever right now. They need to be front and centre in Canada’s approach to pandemic recovery,” said Dr. Jenkins.
To access a complete summary of the findings, please click here.
Interview language(s): English