Marginalized most affected by mental health challenges during COVID

Alcohol and substance use continues to rise during the pandemic, and vulnerable and marginalized populations are the most deeply affected by mental health challenges.

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A new poll by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction conducted by Leger shows that some of us are faring much better than others a year into the pandemic.

The study found that COVID-19-related stressors have an deeper impact on already vulnerable populations, and that those struggling with mental health issues and substance use disorders before the pandemic are being disproportionately impacted.

According to the Leger poll, one in two respondents with a history of substance use disorders reported having moderately severe to severe symptoms of depression since March 2020, and increased mental health symptoms. Respondents with past and current mental health symptoms report a greater increase in substance use.

While almost half of respondents with current mental health symptoms who consume cannabis report increased consumption, among the general population, 40 per cent who use cannabis reported consuming more since last March.


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While more than 60 per cent of respondents reported they were able to deal with the stress, around 50 per cent of respondents report more online streaming, watching/reading the news and social media since a year ago. Fifteen per cent of all respondents and 22 per cent with current mental health symptoms report accessing mental health treatment since March — one in five found access difficult.

Alcohol use is up since the start of the pandemic, but the increase is greater among respondents with a history of substance use disorder, with four in 10 reporting increased consumption between October and December.

Emily Jenkins, a mental health expert and assistant professor at UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science School of Nursing said the numbers are similar to what the university has uncovered in its own research.

“The data show that people who experience health and social inequities such as exclusion, oppression, and racism are much more likely to experience mental health consequences,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins’ research shows that among marginalized and vulnerable groups, there has been a marked deterioration in mental health between the first and second wave of the pandemic.

Early in the pandemic there was concern about mental health impacts on a broad swath of the population, said Jenkins, but the so-called “tsunami” theory of a wave of psychological impacts affecting the general population has not yet materialized.


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“Although the pandemic is impacting the mental health of the general population, some are more deeply affected by it than others, and those who don’t have access to conditions that are supportive to mental health, such as food, shelter and a basic income, are having a much more difficult time,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins said resources need to be dedicated not only to treatment and crisis responses, but to ongoing preventative efforts and resources that affect mental health, including a living wage and access to food and housing.

The Leger poll surveyed more than 4,000 Canadian residents, conducted in two phases between Oct. 13 and Dec. 2, 2020, and found that the respondents’ top stressors were their financial situation (14 per cent), social isolation (12 per cent), and the health of family members (11 per cent).

Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction CEO Rita Notarandrea said, “Almost a year into the pandemic and many Canadians are feeling the strain and some are using substances to deal with the stressors in their lives. While these uncertain times are proving difficult for us all, they are presenting additional challenges and risks for people already living with a substance use disorder.”

Leger invites you to participate in future public opinion surveys at this link.


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