Dr. Mary Bartram
Policy Director with the MHCC
Dr. Robert Gabrys
Senior Research and Policy Analyst at CCSA
Rates of depression and anxiety symptoms and problematic substance use that arose at the beginning of the pandemic remain high more than two years later.
More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many people in Canada still report significant concerns about both their mental health and substance use. The pandemic is also amplifying the relationship between mental health and substance use.
Starting in October 2020, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) and the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) commissioned Leger to conduct a series of polls that explored the relationship between mental health and substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we started collecting data, we saw that rates of depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, suicidal ideation, and problematic substance use had gone way up. And they have stayed way up across all waves of the pandemic. It has not started to come down,” says Dr. Mary Bartram, Policy Director with the MHCC. We also found that mental health and substance use were closely connected.
For example, since March 2020, almost half of people with a substance use disorder reported moderately severe to severe symptoms of depression, and more than a quarter of those who use alcohol reported increased use, according to the Leger poll.
People with substance use concerns are also among those most likely to report thoughts of suicide. The polls show that while eight per cent of survey respondents reported seriously contemplating suicide since the onset of the pandemic, more than 30 per cent of people with a history of a substance use disorder reported suicidal ideation during the pandemic.
Suicidal thoughts more common among youth, unemployed, and 2SLGBTQ+ Canadians
“While everyone has been affected by stresses brought on by two years of the pandemic, it’s clear that not everyone has been impacted equally,” Bartram says. She adds that thoughts of suicide are also more common among youth and 2SLGBTQ+ respondents. In addition, people who were unemployed either before or during the pandemic were more likely to report suicidal ideation compared with people who were employed.
The researchers are hoping for more attention and investment into underlying risk factors including income, housing and employment, and further action to reduce discrimination based on sexual orientation. “These are critical for mental health and critical for problematic substance use,” says Bartram.
We want people to know that how they’re feeling is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. A lot of people continue to feel the effects of the pandemicDr. Robert Gabrys
A normal reaction to an abnormal situation
According to Dr. Robert Gabrys, Senior Research and Policy Analyst at CCSA, financial worries, social isolation, and concerns about one’s mental health have been the top stressors for people throughout the pandemic.
Gabrys says they want people to know they’re not alone. “We want people to know that how they’re feeling is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. A lot of people continue to feel the effects of the pandemic,” he says. “But this could open up opportunities to discuss mental health and substance use, and to have conversations around thoughts of suicide.”
The pandemic has opened new ways of accessing services, such as virtually, but there are still a lot of people not using them. The report highlights the need for new investments into providing access to services and making sure that the uptake is equitable. “We need to make sure that we’re reaching the people who really need to be reached,” says Gabrys.
People experiencing thoughts of suicide or issues with substance use or mental health can get help by talking to their primary care provider or visiting the Wellness Together Canada online portal. It’s a free, confidential service that provides access to courses, apps, and other tools on mental health and substance use, as well as peer support and access to telephone counselling.