As many people enter a seventh week of self-isolation, a new poll confirms that the COVID-19 pandemic is unifying Canadians in their anxiety.
Half of respondents in the new Angus Reid Institute poll said their mental health has worsened, including 10 per cent who said it has worsened “a lot.”
Among the more than 1,900 respondents, people reported being “bored” and “depressed” almost as much as they said they were “grateful” and “optimistic.”
“Worried” and “anxious” were the top two answers, emotional states that experts don’t expect to dissipate any time soon.
“I think we’re going to have a lot more mental health issues as time goes on,” Rima Styra, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca.
"Right now we’re not seeing all of it because people are trying to deal with their specific needs right now. Housing, finding food… trying to deal with employment. But once all of this settles, people are going to sit back and start thinking about it.”
That’s when the current anxieties may intensify, said Styra, particularly among vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with pre-existing mental health issues.
“Compile that with financial problems and it’s a very deep hole for people to get out of,” said Styra.
The COVID-19 pandemic is uncharted territory not only as far as infectious diseases are concerned, but also for the mental health impact. Though Canadian officials initially touted the lessons learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003 as a reason why the novel coronavirus risk was deemed low to Canadians, that talking point has long faded. So too has any notion that the psychological impacts measures during that era may apply today.
Styra co-authored a 2004 study that looked at the mental health of people in Toronto forced to quarantine for 10 days. It found that self-isolation could be associated with post-traumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms.
Styra told CTVNews.ca that while that research may seem a useful barometer for mental health during an outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic is far worse and “a lot more stressful at present.” She and her colleagues are doing a study of health-care workers across several hospitals that they hope will better inform officials of specific mental health needs.
For the general public, Styra suggests people monitor themselves.
“Have a sense of where you’re at,” she said. “If you’re tearful, sad, you’re very pessimistic about the future, starting to have anxiety, not being able to concentrate or sleep. Reach out for mental health support now.”
Telehealth services are growing across the country, added Styra, who has personally spoken with patients who appreciate the telemedicine model. While mental health issues may grow increasingly complicated, support accessed over technology—professional or through friends and family—is a silver lining of the pandemic.
Technology is revealing how connected we all are, even more than during the SARS epidemic.
“Now it’s more of a community-based perception where people feel a lot more supported in many ways. Everyone is involved in this now. There’s a sense of community,” said Styra.
That too may be reflected in the new Angus Reid poll. Though worry and anxiety were the top responses, there was also a sense of optimism. “Grateful” was the third-highest response.