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A message to our government leaders: The impact of COVID-19 on mental health is real. Let’s listen to the evidence.

The overwhelming evidence from Canada shows that the pandemic took a significant and undeniable toll, with ongoing impacts on people’s mental health. In light of this, we would like to alert you to recent reports that suggest otherwise. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association is concerned that one study, receiving extensive attention in Canadian media,1 has the potential to produce a harmful, false narrative about the mental health effects of COVID-19. This study out of McGill University and published in BMJ posits that the pandemic did not have a significant negative impact on mental health. The study had multiple, noted methodological and other limitations.2 For instance, it included only marginal Canadian data (only 4 of 134 reports); it merged data from different countries which had differing pandemic experiences; it included little data from groups that struggled more with their mental health during the pandemic (2SLGBTQ+, adolescents, youth); and it primarily focussed on people with pre-existing mental health conditions, therefore excluding people whose distress had not progressed to a clinical condition during the pandemic.  

The Canadian experience and research3 invariably show a decline in the mental health of Canadians, as well as an increased demand for mental health services. For instance, research from Mental Health Research Canada tells us that 56% of Canadians with mental health needs are not getting the support they need.4 At the same time, the need for mental health services grew exponentially. In Ontario, the demand for adult mental health services in Ontario increased by 47 per cent between 2021 and 2022, while the demand for children and youth services grew by 104 per cent. 5   

The experience of mental health service providers also speaks to the decline in the mental health of Canadians. These service providers saw a radical rise in the number of people seeking help.6 At the same time, the ability to provide those services was strained by funding and workforce challenges,7 further reducing people’s access. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) saw a surge both in the need for mental health services and in wait times. Here is just a glimpse: 

Through the pandemic, many people in Canada experienced – and continue to experience – great distress and have been unable to get mental health supports. We need to invest in those supports and in preventing that distress from becoming illness.  

Perpetuating a narrative that everyone is ok and that people are resilient is hopeful. However, it diminishes, or worse, silences, the very real struggles that many people are experiencing. The fallout from the pandemic is only one of the crises impacting Canadians right now. With the opioid crisis, climate disasters, economic insecurity, and healthcare system collapse, we need to send the message that protecting the mental health of the population is critical.  

We urge you, our leaders, to Act for Mental Health by responding to the overwhelming evidence that people in Canada need mental health supports. There is no debate that the pandemic made mental health worse. Indulging in one may be misguided.  

[1] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-new-study-finds-covid-19-didnt-have-a-big-impact-on-the-mental-health/

[2]  https://www.bmj.com/content/380/bmj-2022-074224/rapid-responses

[3] Mental Health Research Canada: https//www.mhrc.ca/key-facts-on-mental-health

Mental Health Commission of Canada:
 https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2022-01/CCSA-COVID-19-Mental-Health-Substance-Use-Youth-2022-en.pdf; https://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/wp-content/uploads/drupal/2021-04/mhcc_ccsa_covid_leger_poll_eng.pdf

Canadian Mental Health Association/University of British Columbia:
https://cmha.ca/brochure/covid-19-effects-on-the-mental-health-of-vulnerable-populations-wave-1/ ; https://cmha.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CMHA-UBC-wave-2-Summary-of-Findings-FINAL-EN.pdf; https://www.ssph-journal.org/articles/10.3389/ijph.2022.1604685/full; https://cmha.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Key-findings-summary-UBC-round-4-Final.pdf

[4] Richardson C, Goodyear T, Slemon A, Gadermann A, Thomson KC, Daly Z, McAuliffe C, Pumarino, J, & Jenkins, E.* (2022). Emotional response patterns, mental health, and structural vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada: A latent class analysis. BMC Public Healthhttps://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-022-14798-y

Jenkins, E., Slemon, A., Richardson, C., Pumarino, J., McAuliffe, C., Thomson, K.C., Goodyear, T., Daly, Z., McGuinness, L., Gadermann, A. (2022). Mental health inequities amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Findings from three rounds of a cross-sectional monitoring survey of Canadian adults. International Journal of Public Health, 67, 1604685

Slemon, A., Richardson, C., Goodyear, T., Salway, T., Gadermann, A., Oliffe, J., Knight, R., Dhari, S., Jenkins, E.* (2022). Widening mental health and substance use inequities among sexual and gender minority populations: Findings from a repeated cross-sectional monitoring survey during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry Research, 307(114327). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.11432

McAuliffe, C., Pumarino, J., Thomson, K.C., Richardson, C., Slemon, A., Salway, T., Jenkins, E.* (2021). Correlates of suicidal ideation related to the COVID-19 pandemic: Repeated cross-sectional nationally representative Canadian data. Social Science and Medicine – Population Health, 16(100988).https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100988

Other academic sources:
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00787-021-01744-3; https://health-infobase.canada.ca/covid-19/mental-health-survey/; https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(23)00073-1/fulltext

[5] Strata Health. (2023 January 23). Demand for Psychological Services Grew Over 50% in 2022 as Ontarians Increasingly Turn to Privately Delivered Care for Help [Press release]. https://stratahealth.com/ca/news/demand-for-psychological-services-grew-over-50-in-2022-asontarians-increasingly-turn-to-privately-delivered-care-for-help/

[6] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-ontario-kids-mental-health/ https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/12/13/4-million-cries-for-help-calls-to-kids-help-phone-soar-amid-pandemic.html
https://www.psych.on.ca/About-Us/News-Media/2023/Demand-for-psychological-services-grew-over-50-in

[7] https://human-resources-health.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12960-023-00797-6