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COVID-19's Impact on the Mental Health of Canadians

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Opinion by Jami McElrea

The following article contains a discussion of domestic violence. This may be considered disturbing by some readers. We recommend that readers prepare themselves before continuing.

This opinion piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's first issue on Race, Religion, and Culture. The full issue is available here.

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of strong mental health initiatives, as well as highlighted failed policy attempts to address the Canadian Mental Health crisis both during and prior to the pandemic. Pre-pandemic Canada was already in a mental health crisis with a significant portion of the population unable to access help when seeking it (1). Availability and cost of treatment are the greatest barriers as public access to psychotherapists prior to Covid-19 has been extremely limited (2). The Canadian Association for Mental Health has recommended the need for a model that offers free and readily accessible mental health care to Canadians. In a study of 13 000 primary care doctors in Ontario, only 3.2% offered publicly paid psychotherapy (2).

According to a poll from Angus Reid Institute, 50% of Canadians reported worsening mental health during the Covid-19 Pandemic, with 10% saying it has worsened a lot (3). Marginalized groups are found to be more vulnerable to the physical, social, and economic impacts of Covid-19 (3). Since the lockdown access to mental health supports has been unsubstantial, because while some clinics have offered virtual support, the cost and the lack of access to appropriate technology excludes those who may need treatment the most (1). The Government’s mental health response has included quickly disseminating wellness information to the general public, as well as a pivot to virtual services such as Wellness Together Canada (2). This portal connects Canadians to peer support workers, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals for confidential chats and phone calls. It also offers self-assessment tools for rating distress, as well as providing access to credible information to help address mental health and substance abuse. Wellness Together Canada is a collaboration between the Canadian government and Kids Help Phone, Stepped Care Solutions, and Homewood Health (4).

However, while a good start, these efforts have failed to meet the needs of key populations. It is the first mental health platform accessible in every province, which is indicative of the lack of response to the mental health crisis prior to Covid-19. Members of First Nations, Inuit, Metis, immigrant, refugee, ethnocultural, racialized communities have suffered lack of access to services to a greater extent (5). A Longitudinal trend in mental health among ethnic groups in Canada study found that there is a need to develop ethnicity-specific mental health programs targeting those with low education attainment and low social involvement (7). Furthermore, those experiencing domestic-violence, homelessness, poverty, unable to access technology, and living in remote areas are being left behind as well as the transition to virtual services is not equitably accessible across Canada (5). Additionally, there has been a large diversion of research funding to Covid 19, and away from prior service system issues, which negates their importance in the fight for greater mental health accessibility (5).

Thus far there has been a lack of a coordinated approach to virtual services with issues of broadband connectivity not being addressed. However, on Monday November 9th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government will now commit to 1.75 billion to expand high-speed internet in rural and remote communities over 7 years (8). This is a $750 million increase to what has already been committed to combat the significant gap in internet speeds between urban and rural communities (8). Trudeau says that through this commitment “98% of Canadians will be connected to high speed internet in the next few years” (8). While the liberals have emphasized the importance of broadband connectivity by calling it an essential service and by repeatedly pledging to expand access, there has been a lack of clear timelines and recording of progress since the program was first announced during the 2019 budget (8). Since broadband connectivity is crucial to virtual mental health care being accessible to vulnerable populations, there should be a sense of urgency to rapidly expand and deploy broadband connectivity universally (8). Hopefully, the government’s renewed commitment translates to concrete action soon.

Additionally, there has been a drive within Canada to make mental health policy more holistic, and this has led to having better mental health housing and employment models (6). However, despite these promising developments problems persist such as the overrepresentation of those with mental illness in homelessness and the criminal justice system, and the underfunding of community resources (5). The pandemic further exacerbates vulnerabilities such as social isolation, job loss, and homelessness which can trigger mental health distress (5). The impact on populations will not be fully felt until the pandemic is over. It is therefore imperative to utilize the current attention that is being given to mental health to address pre-existing issues within Canadian Mental Health Policy and to transform the system.

  1. Shields, Roslyn. 2020. “Mental Health in Canada: Covid-19 and Beyond.” camh.

  2. Moss, Jennifer. “COVID-19 Related Stress Is Catching up with Canadians, Says Columnist Jennifer Moss.” CBC, June 28, 2020.

  3. “Worry, Gratitude & Boredom: As COVID-19 Affects Mental, Financial Health, Who Fares Better; Who Is Worse? - Angus Reid Institute.” Angus Reid Institute, April 27, 2020.

  4. Health Canada. “Government of Canada Connects Canadians with Mental Wellness Supports during COVID-19.” Government of Canada, April 15, 2020.

  5. Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2020). COVID-19 and mental health: Policy responses and emerging issues [Environmental scan]. Ottawa, Canada: Author

  6. Davis, Simon. 2013. Community Mental Health in Canada: Theory, Policy, and PracticeRevised and Expanded. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013.

  7. Pahwa, P., C. P. Karunanayake, Jesse McCrosky, and Lilian Thorpe. "Longitudinal trends in mental health among ethnic groups in Canada." Chronic Diseases & Injuries in Canada 32, no. 3 (2012).

  8. Boutilier, Alex. 2020. “Liberals Commit $1.75B to Expanding High-Speed Internet in Rural and Remote Communities.” November 9, 2020.

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