Canadian Mental Health Study Finds ‘Alarming Levels of Despair’ Amid Pandemic

December 3, 2020 Updated: December 3, 2020

The number of Canadians having suicidal thoughts has quadrupled during the pandemic, while increased stress and anxiety are causing “alarming levels of despair,” a new study shows. 

Released Dec. 3 by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in partnership with researchers at the University of British Columbia, the study collected data through a nationwide survey on the mental health impacts of COVID-19.

“The second wave of the pandemic has intensified feelings of stress and anxiety, causing alarming levels of despair, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness in the Canadian population,” said a Dec. 3 release from CMHA on the findings. 

Researchers found that most Canadians (71 percent) have anxiety about the second wave of the virus, with 58 percent worried about a loved one or family member dying, and only 21 percent feeling hopeful. 

Forty percent of Canadians said their mental health has deteriorated since March, but that figure rose to 61 percent for those with a pre-existing mental health issue.

“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,” said CMHA’s National CEO, Margaret Eaton.

“I am afraid that many people are in such despair that they can’t see past it.”

The increase in suicidal ideation was significant, with 10 percent of Canadians experiencing recent thoughts of suicide, up from six percent when the pandemic hit in the spring and 2.5 percent throughout pre-pandemic 2016.

The findings reflect data from the Canada Suicide Prevention Service, a national network of crisis lines, which reported a 200 percent increase in calls and texts between October 2019 and October 2020. However, there is no data yet available to determine whether an increase in suicidal thoughts will translate to an increase in death by suicide.

Financial worries were also common among respondents to the CMHA survey, with a third of Canadians (39 percent) reporting financial concerns due to the pandemic. 

The study also found that Canadians are increasingly turning to substances as a way to cope with increased levels of stress and anxiety. Twenty percent of respondents reported increased alcohol use, while many have also increased their use of other substances, including cannabis (9 percent) and prescription medication (7 percent), with even higher rates in subgroups.

“It’s encouraging that half of Canadians are exercising outdoors as a way to cope with the pandemic, but only 11 percent are accessing virtual mental health services or supports. More are turning to alcohol or substances to get through,” said Anne Gadermann, co-lead researcher and professor at the School of Population and Public Health, UBC.