Pandemic Prevention Measures Fuel Mental Health Crisis

July 7, 2020 Updated: July 8, 2020

Closed businesses and social isolation due to pandemic protocols have led to an increase in depression, stress, and suicide, according to surveys and mental health experts.

“I’m seeing a level of fear that I’ve not seen in my clinical experience over 20 years,” Dr. Roger McIntyre, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto, told the Epoch Times.

“I did a clinic today. I spoke to half a dozen people who lost their jobs. They can’t pay their bills. They’re having nightmares. They’re feeling like they could be without their homes, so home insecurity. They’ve got food insecurity. This is an all-out assault on their well-being.”

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that access to the health-care system has been “quite disrupted,” McIntyre said.

“There have been some supply chain hiccups with some medications, and my patients have other physical problems like heart disease and diabetes and other problems and they’re not getting care for that.”

Ontario’s independent Financial Accountability Office calculated that by the end of April more than 50,000 operations and treatments had been postponed due to the pandemic. Dozens died waiting for heart surgery, according to a University Health Network report.

All of this comes while it’s more difficult to connect to loved ones. Social distancing means no shoulder to cry on, and it’s left some distressed people calling for help—literally.

Stephanie MacKendrick, CEO of Crisis Services Canada, says the number of calls to suicide prevention lines and regional crisis centres spiked in March and have remained high.

“What you have is kind of a perfect storm for anxiety. You have isolation, you have concerns about finances,” MacKendrick said.

“You’re isolated from normal social interactions that help to alleviate those things. … So you’re getting a lot of things all at once. It’s not one thing—it’s all of the things that come with the pandemic.”

In May, a survey by the Canadian Mental Health Association in partnership with the University of British Columbia found that six percent of Canadians had thoughts of suicide. This number is much higher than the 2.5 percent who reported suicidal thoughts in 2019. Drastic measures designed to save lives have in many ways made it harder to live.

“When we strain all the parts of daily living—health care, childcare, schooling, job security—we see the direct, negative effects on people’s mental health,” said lead researcher Emily Jenkins, a professor of nursing at UBC who studies mental health and substance use.

Parents of children under 18 were especially vulnerable, the survey showed. Nearly three in ten drank more alcohol. Twelve percent feared emotional domestic violence and nine percent had suicidal thoughts. Roughly half reported declining mental health and anxiety, and almost one-quarter thought their children’s mental health had worsened.

“With bars closed and those social venues for drinking not an option, much of this increased [alcohol] use is likely taking place alone or in isolation within the home,” Jenkins said. “That could contribute to some of what we’re seeing around the increase in intimate partner violence.”

Although youth is an advantage against the virus, it’s a liability during an economic shutdown.

“In mental health, the older you got, the less likely people were to report a deterioration. So we’ve hypothesized that maybe that younger age demographic has been most impacted by layoffs, due to maybe just entering the job market, not having that same level of skill or experience or work history.”

McIntyre says unemployment is bad for mental health, since losing “your job is not just losing money—that’s critical of course—but you lose your [way of] life, you lose your structure, you lose part of who you are for many people. So it’s terrible.”

In mid-April, pollster Angus Reid found half of Canadians reported a deterioration in mental health, while one in ten said it had worsened “a lot.” At that time, three-quarters of Canadians still thought it was too soon to lift restrictions on social distancing and businesses.

McIntyre believes the lockdown was an emergency measure that should have been lifted earlier.

“The definition of health according to World Health Organization is physical health and mental health and social well being. And it didn’t make sense to me to have a government response to the virus that didn’t recognize all three,” he says.

“Sitting at home protecting yourself from the virus is not in itself sufficient if you’re destroying your mental health and your social well-being. It makes no sense to anybody. So we need to have smart containment and start moving this thing forward for people.”

A recent study conducted by McIntyre showed that for every one percent rise in unemployment, there is a one percent rise in suicides. Unless unemployment drops below 15 percent, he expects an extra 2,000 suicides by the end of 2021.

A Mental Health Index issued July 6 by Morneau Shepell showed nearly 30 percent of Canadians employed during the past six months suffered more mental stress in June than May. Compared to last year, respondents had more anxiety, depression, and isolation, and lower productivity and optimism. Less than one in five expected to return to pre-pandemic spending patterns.

Crisis Services Canada is available 24/7 toll-free at 1-833-456-4566 or by text at 45645.