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‘Such despair they can’t see past it’: Pandemic-driven mental health crises on the rise in Canada

Last Updated Dec 3, 2020 at 6:59 am PDT

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Almost half of Canadians surveyed said their mental health declined during the COVID-19 pandemic

Indigenous, disabled, and female Canadians expressed more anxiety and sadness

One-in-10 Canadians has felt suicidal during COVID-19 restrictions and worries

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — As the second wave of COVID-19 sweeps across the nation, the damage the drawn-out emergency has done to Canadians’ mental health is becoming more clear, and we need to be checking in on one another more often, say experts.

The most recent survey from the Canadian Mental Health Association shows a sharp spike in suicidality, and crisis centre workers across the country say their work has become more emotionally draining.

“I am afraid that many people are in such despair that they can’t see past it,” says CMHA’s National CEO, Margaret Eaton.

“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,” she adds.

While 40 per cent of the 3,027 Canadian adults surveyed said their mental health has declined since March, 21 per cent of Canadians said they are hopeful.

However, the survey was executed in September, before major spikes in daily case counts, increased restrictions, and the recent spate of record-setting deaths in B.C..

Increased feelings of despair and hopelessness were more pronounced in people who identified as Indigenous (54 per cent), LGBTQ2+ (54 per cent), disability (50 per cent) or women (45 per cent).

Those who are unemployed (61 per cent), have a pre-existing mental health issue (61 per cent), and younger people aged 18-24 (60 per cent), also experienced heightened anxiety and stress above the national average.

Only 34 per cent of those who identified as male said they felt their mental health declined between March and September.

Increase in suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Dr. Allison Crawford with the Canada Suicide Prevention Service says she has seen a 200 per cent increase in calls over last year.

“A number of those calls relate to the COVID-19 pandemic and talk about anxieties or worries related to the pandemic,” she says.

Hannah Storrs with Distress Centre Calgary says she only used to get calls related to suicide occasionally, but now they’re back-to-back.

“People are dealing with a lot right now; they’re dealing with isolation, they’re dealing with mental health issues, they’re dealing with financial issues, on top of just being scared of what could happen in the world,” she says.

She says her work has become more stressful and draining as well.

“I have to take more breaks during the shifts that I’m on to take the time after a call that’s been really intense or just been a lot different than what I’m used to. I just need to take that step to be like, ‘Woah,’ and calm myself, so that I can actually give the next caller everything I can for them just like I did with the previous one.”

The CMHA’s Eaton says she’s very worried about the “tremendous emotional toll that we’re all experiencing at this time,” and she’s urging people to reach out to loved ones and take the time to check-in and make real connections.

“Reach out to each other. Social isolation is one of the big issues that drives these feelings of low mental health so do connect with friends and family, as much as you can, virtually, at a distance, and that will help,” says Eaton.

Anyone who needs help can find it 24 hours a day through B.C.’s crisis lines. A full list is available at crisislines.bc.ca.

The following are other resources available in B.C.:

1-800-SUICIDE: 1-800-784-2433
Mental Health Support Line: 310-6789
Vancouver Coastal Regional Distress Line: 604-872-3311
Seniors Distress Line: 604-872-1234
Online Chat Service for Youth: www.YouthInBC.com (Noon to 1 a.m.)
Online Chat Service for Adults: www.CrisisCentreChat.ca (Noon to 1 a.m.)