One in four Canadians are still feeling moderate to extreme levels of anxiety and are binge drinking — trends that continue to alarm mental health experts as the country heads into a lonelier than usual holiday season.
The results, released Tuesday, come out of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) sixth and last survey in 2020 on Canadians’ mental health with data collection company Delvinia, where people from coast to coast were consistently asked about their mental health levels since May.
The latest survey of 1,003 Canadians was conducted Nov. 27 to Dec. 1, when Toronto was in lockdown and the country at large grappled with a second wave of COVID-19 infections. It shows anxiety has risen to levels similar to the beginning of the pandemic after dropping significantly over the summer.
Half of those reporting moderate to high anxiety said their feelings are fuelled by financial worry, according to the survey.
Depression levels have remained steady throughout, though they are more prevalent among women — 24 per cent of whom reported feeling depressed occasionally or most of the time, significantly higher than 19 per cent of men who reported the same.
While regional data is not available through the survey, Dr. Hayley Hamilton, a senior scientist at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH, said it’s evident the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt by all Canadians.
“Although public health measures are different across the provinces … we’re all aware of the pandemic, we’re all experiencing some level of anxiety that might be associated with it,” Hamilton said.
With the results of CAMH’s last survey out, experts said they hope the findings underscore the prolonged impact the pandemic and related public health policies and restrictions have had on Canadians’ mental health. They also called for ongoing research beyond the pandemic to better understand how to support Canadians through these challenges.
The biggest cause for alarm, said Dr. David Gratzer, a psychiatrist at CAMH, continues to be the heightened levels at which Canadians are binge-drinking through the pandemic. CAMH’s latest survey suggests 25.7 per cent of Canadians are engaging in heavy episodic drinking, up from 19 per cent in pre-pandemic 2019, according to Statistics Canada data.
“Most people seem to be coping well with the mood and anxiety symptoms,” Gratzer said, including many Canadians who reported they’ve been seeking help with their mental health. But Gratzer worries about “those who are using less appropriate coping mechanisms,” as prolonged patterns of binge drinking and substance use can be hard to break in the longer term.
As the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines are being given in Canada, a glimmer of hope lies on the horizon. But in the immediate future, Canadians will need to brace themselves for a socially distant holiday period. For this reason, Gratzer emphasized healthier coping mechanisms during what is sure to be a difficult time for most who aren’t able to gather with friends and family as usual.
Citing a recent paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Gratzer highlighted a few ways people can cope during the holidays, including making the effort to connect with friends and family through phone calls, letters or video chat.
Volunteering is also a good way to keep spirits high during the holidays, the paper said. While volunteering in person may not be possible this holiday season, there are safe opportunities to help out at a variety of organizations, from virtual peer mentoring to delivering meals to those in need.
Frequent exercise and following a routine are also good ways to maintain a healthy mind during the holidays, Gratzer said.