As we prepare for another potential wave of the pandemic this fall, we must begin to address the wave of pent-up mental health anxiety, depression and substance abuse that has been building since COVID-19 shattered our daily routines and communities in March.
The results of a recent national survey undertaken with DART & Maru/Blue Public Opinion were disturbing but not unexpected: nearly half (48 per cent) of Canadians are very concerned about their mental health (e.g., stress, anxiety, etc.) due to the impact of COVID-19 — that’s 14.4 million Canadian adults experiencing mental health distress.
Research demonstrates that when individuals or groups are isolated for an extended period there is a profound, enduring impact on mental, emotional and social health. Social isolation, disruptions to routines, uncertainty and loss of meaning can all be traumatizing. Some of us will adjust and adapt. For many others, however, the mental health distress and substance use will continue long after the lockdown has ended.
These Canadians are the members of our society who are already the most in need of support. Previous periods of mental health distress, childhood trauma, victimization, systemic racism, discrimination, problem use of substances, unemployment and poverty dramatically raise the likelihood that the pandemic will result in enduring trauma, addiction and isolation.
As we know that six per cent of Canadians suffer from substance abuse disorder and many others struggle with mental illness, it’s safe to assume that around 10 per cent of the Canadian population, or three million people, are facing significant mental health challenges that will need to be addressed. That’s roughly the combined population of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia.
So where are they? While many Canadians may not have noticed an increase in people suffering from mental health issues, as we begin to open up our society and get back to some form of normalcy, they’ll begin to surface. Members of this group are now starting to present themselves to those who know them and those who have the expertise to render assistance. Between now and the end of the year, we’ll see this increased need for mental health and substance abuse support, and it will continue to grow as new realities and stressors take hold.
We have limited time before the storm surge comes ashore. Our health officials and practitioners must be vigilant for signs of trauma. Public health and social workers, teachers, police and emergency service providers will need to listen carefully to spouses, siblings and children. Training in recognizing and supporting those affected needs to be made available across our social, educational and health systems.
Ultimately, municipalities and provinces across the country will have to prepare to offer prevention and treatment services, because they have the authority to provide the resources that are needed to heal our communities.
The pandemic has driven creative solutions to these challenges. At the organization I work for, Renascent, an addiction rehab centre in Toronto, we revolutionized the way we counselled and treated those already suffering from substance abuse and their families by coming up with innovative new methods of providing individual and group treatment in a safe manner during COVID-19.
But no matter how much we prepare to address the mental health challenges that have been brought on by the pandemic, we won’t be ready because our existing clients — those who were being treated before the coronavirus struck — are filling the available spaces and resources.
This is a warning flare. A second wave of the pandemic may be mitigated by social distancing efforts and other public health measures. We need to approach the building storm of trauma, isolation and substance use with the same vigour and resolve. Failure to be ready is already measured in Canadian lives, families and communities.
Michael Lochran is the director of programs and operations for Toronto-based Renascent, which has provided evidence-based treatment programs to more than 50,000 individuals, families, communities and workplaces affected by alcohol and drug addiction and co-occurring mental illness over 50 years.