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POLL: Ontario bracing for mental health, substance abuse crisis triggered by pandemic

North Central Behavioral Health Services

A new poll from one of Canada's leading mental health organizations says Ontario residents are bracing for a mental health crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
 The survey from the Ontario division of the Canadian Mental Health Association is the first in a series of three questionnaires meant to gauge the impact the outbreak and its various ripple effects will have on the way Ontario residents feel and behave.

The majority of the 1,001 respondents to the online poll conducted by Pollara say they fear the effects COVID-19 will have on the national economy, the future for both older and younger generations, personal finances and the well-being of friends and family.

The survey found 53% of participants worry about their own mental health as a result of the pandemic, while 67% say they're concerned about the toll on their loved ones. The survey also found 23% of respondents admit to increasing their use of substances such as alcohol, cannabis and tobacco.

CMHA Ontario said the survey's findings all point to a looming surge in demand for mental health supports that the province's existing systems simply aren't equipped to handle.

"The poll confirms that Ontarians have figured it out and we're headed for a mental health crisis," Ontario division CEO Camille Quenneville said in a telephone interview.

Quenneville said Ontario's mental health system was stretched thin prior to the pandemic, leaving little room to respond to the new demands caused by the widespread upheaval that's taken place since COVID-19 became a public health emergency.

She also was struck by survey results showing respondents were more willing to express concern for abstract issues and other people than admit to facing struggles themselves.

About 90% of survey participants said they feared the pandemic would have a detrimental effect on the economy, with 69% saying that translated to anxiety over their personal finances. The poll found 79% of participants worried about the future, with 87% fearing for older generations and 71% nervous for the effect on younger Canadians.

Quenneville said mental health struggles are almost inevitable given these wide-spread stress factors, adding the fact that only about half of survey respondents would admit to concern for their own mental health speaks to the powerful stigma that still prevails in much of society.

The poll's findings around substance use also tell a cautionary tale, said Quenneville.

"They're not fine," she said of survey respondents who say they're turning to booze and cannabis more often and at different times of the day than they did prior to the pandemic. "I worry a lot about people not piecing together the fact that this is about their mental health and the coping mechanisms they're choosing."

The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error as they are not a random sample and therefore are not necessarily representative of the whole population.

Adrienne Spafford, CEO of Addictions and Mental Health Ontario, said data beyond the CMHA survey suggests provincial systems will see an influx of patients in the months ahead.

Spafford said that while many people using alcohol and drugs more regularly now will be able to revert to previous habits once public health restrictions ease, some won't be able to do so.

"We were already a system under strain," she said, noting wait times for treatment could range from anywhere from six months to two years depending on both the patient's needs and the part of the province they live in. "We need to make some pretty hefty investments in services and supports across the full continuum."

The Ontario Ministry of Health, which oversees mental health in the province, recently announced $12 million to expand virtual and online supports during the pandemic, but would not comment on specific plans for the aftermath of the outbreak.

"Our government will continue to work to ensure that all Ontarians are truly supported on their journey toward mental wellness," spokeswoman Hayley Chazan said in a statement.


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