COVID-19 stress amplifying mental health and substance use concerns: Leger poll
Ottawa, February 17, 2021 — COVID-19-related stresses are disproportionately impacting people with a history of mental health or substance use concerns, according to a new Leger poll commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).
As many as one in two respondents with a history of substance use disorders reported having moderately severe to severe symptoms of depression since March 2020.
Among the general population, there has also been a sharp rise in those experiencing symptoms of depression. That number has risen from two per cent before the pandemic (according to the Canadian Community Health Survey) to 14 per cent.
Between October and December, around one third of those surveyed who drink alcohol reported drinking more since the start of the pandemic. The increase was notably greater among respondents with a history of substance use disorder, 4 in 10 to almost half of whom reporting increased consumption during this period.
Respondents with past and current mental health concerns also indicated both increased substance use and more problematic substance use. Up to one in two respondents with current mental health symptoms who use cannabis and over one in three who use alcohol reported consuming more of these substances since the start of the pandemic.
Among the general population, two in five who use cannabis reported consuming more since March 2020.
The survey of more than 4,000 Canadian residents, conducted in two phases between October 13 and December 2, 2020, offers fresh insights into the ways COVID-19 stressors are weighing on different segments of the population. Although it found mental health symptoms and problematic substance use high across the board, COVID-19 related stressors — from financial strain to isolation and the health of family members — have an amplified impact on substance use and mental health.
For Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the MHCC, the increased attention on mental illness and substance use during the pandemic is a double-edged sword. “It is important not to confuse a diagnosable condition with a normal response to an abnormal situation. But I do worry about the echo pandemic of anxiety and depression, when we see declines reported in mental health across the board. Even more distressing is the hidden crisis among those living with serious mental illness, whose needs risk being overshadowed by the widespread malaise affecting the population as a whole.”
CCSA CEO Rita Notarandrea expressed a similar worry. “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. Substance use disorder is a health condition that can have devastating consequences and create significant barriers to positive health outcomes; it is not a choice or moral failing. But many people experiencing the harms of substance use may not feel safe seeking the help and support they need because of the stigma associated with it. We want people to know that, whatever their circumstances, support is available.”
The MHCC and CCSA are also concerned that, while awareness is higher, the extent to which people experiencing the harms of substance use or who have mental health concerns are accessing necessary treatments and supports is not keeping pace. Just 24 per cent of respondents with problematic substance use and 22 per cent of those with current mental health symptoms have accessed treatment since March.
“Normally, a high tide rises all boats,” conceded Bradley. “But in this case, there’s a risk of drowning out the needs of those with histories of mental health and substance use disorders. We must remember that those who entered the pandemic with more serious illnesses are likely to experience worsening symptoms as it wears on. I applaud initiatives like Wellness Together Canada, but if there was ever a time to increase funding for mental health and substance use and reap the dividends, that time is now.”
“People need timely access to a full range of quality services and supports that meet people where they are at. Let’s respond to what the data continues to show us so that no one is left behind,” said Notarandrea.
- Respondents’ top stressors were their financial situation (14%), social isolation (12%) and the health of family members (11%).
- One in three who use alcohol reported increased use, while one in five reported high-risk use.
- Two in five respondents who consume cannabis reported increased consumption and problematic use.
- One out of two respondents with current mental health symptoms who consume cannabis reported increased consumption.
- Moderate and severe anxiety symptoms were highest among respondents with a history of substance use or mental health disorders.