OHS Canada Magazine

More Canadians have poor mental health. The economy is partly to blame, survey says

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March 21, 2024
By The Canadian Press

Health & Safety

People are silhouetted as they sit in a restaurant having a drink during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic plus economic stressors are taking a toll on the mental health of Canadian adults, according to new data released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) on Thursday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The double whammy of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic stressors is taking a toll on the mental health of Canadian adults, according to new data released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information on Thursday.

An international survey conducted in 10 high-income countries by The Commonwealth Fund found that 29 per cent of Canadians aged 18 and older suffered from depression, anxiety or another mental health issue in 2023.

At the same time, many Canadians weren’t seeking mental health care because of the cost, the study said.

Fewer Canadian adults — 20 per cent — reported having mental health problems back in 2016.

“That really runs on par with what we see across the country in terms of heightened levels of stress, anxiety and depression, particularly in the wake of the pandemic,” said Sarah Kennell, national director of public policy for the Canadian Mental Health Association.


In addition to the pandemic, economic woes are contributing to worsening mental health in Canada, the survey suggested.

It found more Canadians were stressed about housing and food security compared to the average among people in other high-income nations.

The other nine countries included in The Commonwealth Fund survey were Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In Canada, 17 per cent of people surveyed said they were worried about being able to pay their rent or mortgage, compared to an average of 14 per cent across the 10 countries.

Ten per cent of Canadians worried about having enough food, compared with an average of eight per cent.

Similarly, 10 per cent of Canadians worried about having a safe, clean place to sleep, compared to the eight per cent average across all the countries.

Economic factors are “absolutely” affecting people’s mental health in Canada, Kennell said.

“We really think of it as a period of ‘syndemic,’ which is the kind of coming together of many crises that intersect with mental health — with the pandemic, but also the rising cost of living and affordability that all parts of this country are experiencing,” she said.

The survey also found that 15 per cent of Canadians said that cost prevented them from using mental health services.

“Not only are economic factors potentially contributing to declining mental health, they can also play a factor in Canadians’ abilities to get the help that they need,” said Cheryl Chui, director of health system analytics at CIHI.

Kennell, of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said other research suggests that the problem is actually much worse, with 29 per cent of Canadians citing “inability to pay as the main reason for not accessing mental health services,” including counselling, psychotherapy or other treatments.

“Because of the way our mental health system is constructed, they’re unable to find a free or publicly available option,” Kennell said.

The average proportion of people across the 10 countries surveyed citing cost as a barrier to mental health services was lower than in Canada, at 11 per cent.

Both Chui and Kennell said that shows there’s an opportunity to learn from other wealthy nations about ways to make mental health care more accessible.

“Countries in Scandinavia and throughout Europe really adopt a more holistic and comprehensive approach when delivering health care, meaning that it’s all part of the public package of services delivered,” said Kennell.

In Canada, “we see mental health and substance use and addiction services fall outside of our public universal health-care system, meaning that people have to pay out of pocket (and) rely on limited insurance benefits,” she said.

The 2023 Commonwealth Fund survey also asked adults in the 10 wealthy countries about their experiences with primary care.

Canada fared worse than any other country in the survey, with 86 per cent of respondents saying they have a doctor or a place they usually go to for medical care — a decrease from 2016, when 93 per cent had access to primary care.

That means an estimated four million Canadian adults were without access to primary care last year, the study said.

The best access to primary care was in the Netherlands, with 99 per cent of people reporting they had a primary care provider.

The Commonwealth Fund is a U.S.-based non-profit foundation that funds surveys of patients and health-care providers in multiple countries. CIHI is the Canadian partner.

Researchers conducted interviews between March and August 2023 in 10 countries. In Canada, 4,820 people were interviewed.


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