More mental health concerns, less support during pandemic: Researchers

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers across Canada have been studying its effects on mental health.

1 in 7 experiencing high degree of mental health issues during pandemic, says Sask. research lead

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers across Canada have been studying its effects on our mental health. (CBC)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers across Canada have been studying its effects on mental health. 

In August — six months after the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Saskatchewan — researchers used an online poll to reach a comparable probabilistic sample of 576 Saskatchewan residents about their experiences during the early months of the pandemic. 

The population-based survey, conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights on behalf of Mental Health Research Canada and supported by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, was analyzed by researchers at the Saskatchewan Population and Evaluation Research Unit (SPHERU).

Some of their findings raise concerns about how much more anxious and depressed and how much less supported people throughout Saskatchewan were feeling in August. 

"The mental health impact during COVID is real," said Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, who led SPHERU's analysis of the Saskatchewan mental health and COVID-19 data.

"It is a real concern to have one out of seven people experiencing not just a moderate amount, but a high degree of mental health issues like depression." 

The study found that 20 per cent of Saskatchewan respondents were experiencing high levels of anxiety since COVID began, compared to 7.6 per cent before COVID. Just over 15 per cent of Saskatchewan respondents were experiencing a high level of depression, over double the rate of pre-COVID numbers. 

Particularly concerning to Muhajarine was the finding that 10 per cent of people in Saskatchewan reported that they needed mental health support, but did not access any help.

While some mental health services have moved online during the pandemic Muhajarine says that has not actually made them more accessible to all the people in the province who may need them. 

"There are places in Saskatchewan where internet and cell phone connectivity is an issue, particularly in the northern parts of Saskatchewan and in remote areas," he said. "There are lots of people who live in … areas where this kind of communication network and infrastructure is not as great as what we have in our urban centres."

The survey showed mental health impacts of the pandemic were not spread out evenly across the board. The people who reported experiencing anxiety during the first six months of COVID were more likely to be young, and to live in northern areas of the province. 

Muhajarine was not surprised that young people's mental health has been disproportionately negatively impacted this year. 

"I think younger people, in general, are at a stage of their lives where their social life, the work they do and the places they go are very much bound up with their identity and their development," he said. "People in their 40s and 50s, who have their own families. They're at a different stage in their lives. 

While Muhajarine believes the public health orders, which 78 per cent of Saskatchewan respondents said they were following, compared to an average of 83 per cent for the rest of Canadians, were contributing to some of these mental health issues, he was clear that they are not themselves to blame. 

"Mental health issues are not a consequence of public health restrictions alone," he said. "They are also a consequence of the virus and COVID-19 itself." 

He is also clear that, even when the pandemic is over and it is safe to go about our daily lives as usual again, the mental health impacts of COVID-19 will not disappear overnight. 

"We will need support," he said. "We will need a prolonged period of stability and normalcy in our lives after the pandemic is over, in order to reset and regain the kind of life that we had before the pandemic that was suddenly taken away." 

The survey, conducted from Aug. 21 to Aug. 31, 2020, had a margin of error of ±4.1 per cent.