Mental health impacts of COVID-19

Social Sciences

- Anne MacLaurin

Paterson (left) and Turner. Photo: UVic Photo Services

Depression and anxiety on the rise in Canada since start of pandemic

As the global pandemic enters its eighth month, many Canadians say they are experiencing higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts since COVID-19 and associated lockdown measures began in the spring.

Fear and anxiety about the novel coronavirus and the uncertainties in every day life it has brought can be overwhelming and create strong reactions in adults and youth. As people react differently to stress, University of Victoria researchers Brianna Turner and Theone Paterson are working with a global team of scientists to understand the different impacts and improve the mental well-being of communities in Canada.

Early survey results show gaps in Canada’s mental health services. Younger Canadians, or those under 35, are especially feeling their needs aren’t being met, given reports of higher rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness and poor social support relative to older individuals.

This may be because younger people feel more vulnerable to certain economic impacts of the pandemic such as job loss. There may also have been a higher rate of pre-existing mental health concerns in this group before the pandemic, explains Turner.

Paterson, an assistant professor of psychology at UVic, says the study will give researchers a unique understanding of the impact of the pandemic across participating regions around the world to compare country by country what people are experiencing. This will help inform mental health policy and services. Paterson, who is a clinical neuropsychologist, is working alongside Turner, a UVic clinical psychologist whose research focuses on youth, self-harm behaviour and suicide.

We are investigating the psychological impacts of COVID-19 and the public health response across time. Research conducted to date has reported increases in self-harm and suicidal thoughts, experience of domestic violence, experience of symptoms relating to anxiety, depression and stress, as well as changes in substance-use experiences in different regions.
Theone Paterson, UVic assistant professor and clinical neuropsychologist

A higher number of Canadians are experiencing at least a moderate level of depression or anxiety, while the number reporting suicidal thoughts has increased by about 50 per cent. However, about 40 per cent of Canadians needing mental health services say they are not receiving professional or community supports.

We hope to develop practical recommendations to improve practitioners’ ability to match the best types of mental health services to meet people’s needs.
Brianna Turner, UVic assistant professor and clinical psychologist

Comparing Canadian findings with data from other countries will give researchers a unique understanding of the impact of the pandemic across participating regions.  It may also shed light on changes to available mental health services that could be beneficial in the Canadian context.

COVID-19 has been compared to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and it is likely this historical event had significant psychological impacts. But there are some unique features of the current pandemic. The virus' ease of transmission compared to others has led to more broad-reaching public health responses.

“There have been lockdowns of cities, extensive business and school closures. Around the world, the public health response has hugely impacted our lives,” says Paterson. “It is important to improve our understanding of how all these changes have affected our mental health.” 

The study is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research COVID-19 Mental Health and Substance Use Service Needs and Delivery program.


Mental health during COVID-19 is a leading concern for researchers and governments. Local and federal governments need more information to support decision-making around mental health responses to the pandemic.

The UK’s National Health Service launched the worldwide survey in August. UVic is the only Canadian university participating in the global collaboration. There will be multiple rounds of surveys happening throughout the fall and winter months.

The top issues identified in Canada are depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety. An important early finding is that the proportion of men reporting suicidal thoughts has increased. Also, men under age 35 report they are not receiving services and supports that they need.

Research partners include the United Way of the Lower Mainland, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and the Ontario Social Workers Association. Turner and Paterson are working with a team of seven graduate and undergraduate student researchers at UVic.

Accelerate COVID-19 recovery

Research plays a vital role in solving the world’s big challenges including how communities respond to COVID-19.

UVic’s Research Accelerator Fund is a seed fund that will support and boost research at our university.


In this story

Keywords: Research Accelerator Fund, COVID, community, health, mental health, psychology, research, administrative

People: Brianna Turner, Theone Paterson

Publication: knowlEDGE

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