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Anxiety, depression, loneliness at highest levels among Canadians since early pandemic: survey

Anxiety and feelings of depression and loneliness among adult Canadians are at their highest levels — especially among women and frontline workers — since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a report released Tuesday by Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) suggests.

“After all of the ups and downs of the pandemic, in terms of the overall mental health of Canadians, in many ways we are right back to where we were two years ago,” said Dr. Hayley Hamilton, survey co-lead and senior scientist at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research. 

“With Omicron in full force during this survey period, the relatively lower levels of mental distress reported last summer when the vaccine rollout was in full swing are now a distant memory for a lot of people.”

More than 25 per cent of survey participants reported feeling moderate to severe anxiety — up from 19 per cent in July 2021, CAMH said. 

Also, around 24 per cent reported feelings of loneliness in comparison to 18.8 per cent last summer, and roughly 22.3 per cent of people reported having feelings of depression, compared to 18.6 per cent last summer.

Consistent with previous surveys, Canadians between 18 and 39 years old reported the highest levels with 33.5 per cent for anxiety, 29.1 per cent for loneliness and 27.7 per cent for feelings of depression.

The survey released Tuesday is the ninth and final CAMH survey in a series on Canadians’ pandemic health and substance abuse. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

The survey, completed by 1,004 Canadians between Jan. 7 and 11, also pointed to a significant gender gap in the results.

Reports of moderate to severe anxiety, loneliness and feelings of depression increased significantly among women in Canada, but only slightly for men.

“These larger increases among women may reflect that they are often carrying a disproportionate burden, including imbalances in care-giving responsibilities and frontline work,” said Samantha Wells, senior director of the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH.

Also workers with jobs that expose them to a high risk of contracting COVID-19 reported “large increases in adverse mental health symptoms,” with 37 per cent reporting moderate to severe anxiety compared to 23.5 per cent last summer and 35.7 per cent reported feelings of depression compared to 24. 8 per cent.

“While people are incredibly resilient, as this pandemic wears on it’s the people working on the front lines who are among the most affected,” said Wells. 

Samantha Wells, senior director of the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH, says frontline workers have been heavily affected by stresses associated with the pandemic. (CAMH)

Fear of contracting COVID-19 doubled

Jaeyell Kim, a Toronto social worker and psychotherapist, says he was not surprised by the survey results.

Kim said he, like many other therapists, is operating at full capacity. He said he noticed a drastic uptick in similar reports from his clients after the Omicron wave kicked in, due to feeling isolated and not knowing what the future holds.

Kim said some clients who started to feel optimism last year because of COVID-19 vaccines and loosened restrictions were hit with a harder sense of helplessness and loneliness during this wave.

“People are starting to ask more questions like ‘What if this never ends?’ and I think that really starts to increase the levels of anxiety,” Kim told CBC News. “We are constantly asking questions and … we try to come up with the worst case scenario to prepare ourselves.”

The survey is the ninth and final CAMH survey in a series on Canadians’ pandemic health and substance abuse, conducted in collaboration with Delvinia, a research technology and consumer data collection company.

The results are based on responses from English-speaking Canadians aged 18 and older who completed the survey online. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Survey results also pointed to a significant increase in reports of unmet mental health needs: 24 per cent of participants said they needed mental health services to cope with the pandemic in the past 12 months but were unable to receive them, compared to 19.5 per cent the summer prior.

‘More pessimism, less resilience’

Among other key findings, the survey indicated that the fear of contracting COVID-19 doubled to 28.3 per cent from 14.2 per cent a year ago.

“I think for a lot of people, this wave feels different from the other waves, like the rug has been pulled out from under them after they thought the worst was over,” said Dr. David Gratzer, a psychiatrist at CAMH.

“I am seeing more pessimism and less resilience than in previous waves.”

Financial stresses, economic hardship and issues around housing are all among the factors contributing to the reported levels of anxiety and depression, Gratzer said.

WATCH | Canadians anxious to return to normal life prior to Omicron wave:

Many Canadians anxious about return to ‘normal life’, study suggests

6 months ago

Duration 2:12

The co-author of a study on Canadian mental health says it’s understandable that people feel anxiety about returning to what life was like before the COVID-19 pandemic. The report showed anxiety was highest among adults under 40 and those with children under 18 living in the home. 2:12

“We often think about COVID-19 in terms of the physical consequences of this pandemic, very understandably with people struggling for their lives right now in ICUs,” Gratzer said. “But there’s obviously a mental health component as well. And that’s really what comes through in this survey.”

He said governments and policy makers must make mental health a priority to prepare for the fallout of the pandemic and its impact on the healthcare system.

“Many people are experience anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as other mental health problems related to the pandemic,” he said.

“Remember, we were already in a mental health crisis before the pandemic began, and this won’t end when the last COVID-19 patient leaves the ICU.”

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