Covid Lessons (3)
Prior to the pandemic, society had made a number of gains in terms of giving mental health the importance it deserves. We’d been slowly moving away from the attitude of “out of sight, out of mind” and “be strong and carry on”. When the pandemic struck, bringing with it lockdowns and anxiety from the prospect of catching the virus, we found ourselves facing the greatest mental health challenge in living memory. Yet instead of keeping mental health front and centre in our approach to fighting the virus, it was largely put on the back burner. We’re now getting an idea of how serious the fallout from this approach has been.
Researchers at the University of Sherbrooke found that over the period of the pandemic approximately one person in six were victims of domestic abuse, verbal or otherwise. Quite surprisingly, the percentage of men reported as victims was similar to that of women. This same study found twice as many women reported suffering physical abuse compared to periods prior to the pandemic. Le Devoir reported that women’s shelters were at maximum capacity throughout most of 2021, something never before seen.
Although suicide rates didn’t increase in the first two years of the pandemic, calls to suicide lines became more centred on lock-downs and other health measures, indicating persistent feelings of depression and despair in those who were already struggling emotionally. Calls to 8-1-1 connected to emotional distress doubled between 2019 and 2021. Many of these callers cited isolation for their feelings of mental anguish. The University of Sherbrooke also found that over 50% of youth were showing signs of depression in October 2021, and excessive drinking among youth was also higher than before the pandemic.
In terms of education, average scores in reading on standardized tests in Quebec were down 8 points between 2019 and 2021. Scores for the weakest students were 20 points lower over the same period.
Another warning sign among youth is adolescents’ attitudes towards face masks. Since they stopped being required in schools, a majority of students have stopped wearing them. Among those who continue to do so, however, many have cited as a reason wanting to hide their faces rather than protecting themselves from Covid, feeling ashamed of their appearance. Le Devoir spoke to several teachers about this, and assembled anecdotal evidence, but a more thorough study needs to be conducted to see how many teenagers are suffering from deep insecurities, and how to help such kids improve their self esteem.
Most worryingly of all, mental health professionals have said that wait times to receive treatment have increased substantially during the pandemic due to a steep rise in the number of people seeking help. Our governments need to refocus on mental health priorities and work to dramatically increase access to psychological care. As is so common in our healthcare system, psychologists make substantially more in the private sector, and face a much less demanding workload. We’ve previously shown that society can recognize the importance of mental health. What’s left is to prove that we’ll do so when it matters most.