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Online supports for COVID-19 stress are there—but Canadians aren’t accessing them

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Originally published in UBC News.

Many Canadians are not making use of virtual resources that could help them cope with the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the latest analysis of a national survey led by researchers at UBC, in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

Sixty-five per cent of the 3,000 survey participants reported adverse mental health impacts related to COVID-19 in May, yet only two per cent reported accessing online mental health resources such as apps, websites, digital tools or other supports not involving direct contact with a mental health care provider.

“Even among people who were experiencing mental distress of various types, and in groups who would likely benefit from these resources, the uptake was quite low,” said lead researcher Emily Jenkins, a professor of nursing at UBC. “These programs are ideally positioned for the types of difficult experiences and emotions that we’re seeing during the pandemic. They are well suited for people who are having trouble coping and need some support to manage their mental health. They’re also easily accessed, and many are available in different languages.”

Among the online mental health resources available free to Canadians are:

  • CMHA’s BounceBack, currently available in B.C., Manitoba and Ontario and expanding to the rest of the country soon through a gift from Bell Let’s Talk
  • Wellness Together Canada, a federally funded program
  • WellCan, a resource developed and funded by corporate, community and public sector partners
  • Ontarians also have free access to the for-profit cognitive behavioural therapy program MindBeacon during the COVID-19 pandemic

Some people did make more use of online mental health resources than others, but the numbers remained low across the board. One in 10 respondents who reported self-harming accessed these resources, with similar rates among those who reported coping “not well at all” with pandemic-related stress. Among those who experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings, eight per cent said they had used these supports, while seven per cent of respondents who reported “significantly worse” mental health during the pandemic said they had.

Dr. Chris G. Richardson

“Online mental health resources were being accessed at slightly higher levels by a small group, particularly people connected already with the health-care system who are likely being referred to them by care providers,” says Chris Richardson, an associate professor at the School of Population and Public Health at UBC, and Program Head – Psychosocial Epidemiology at the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences at St. Paul’s Hospital.

Notably, among the 42 participants who reported that nothing had helped them cope with stress related to COVID-19, none reported having accessed online mental health resources. And, while these resources work best for those suffering from mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression, only about three per cent of individuals who reported feeling anxious or stressed accessed virtual supports. Those who felt hopeless, depressed, or panicked only accessed them at rates around four per cent.

At a time when Canadians are reporting high levels of stress, anxiety and depression, online mental health resources can offer accessible, affordable and evidence-based support, said Jenkins. “A lot of the mental health care that people might want to seek is not publicly funded,” she said. “It’s important for people to know that there are options that are freely available to everyone.”

Jenkins and Richardson are conducting further research to understand why use of these resources is so low, but early indications are that a lack of awareness is a major contributing factor. “We see a lot of messaging out there about physical distancing, face masks and hand washing. We really need to get more messages out to people about how they can support their mental health in a positive way as well,” said Richardson.

The 330 CMHA locations across Canada have been rapidly innovating their community mental health programs, services and supports to meet people’s needs during the pandemic, says national CEO, Margaret Eaton. “Since the start of the pandemic, demand for mental health services is way up,” said Eaton. “Online mental health supports are one evidence-based way that we can help people during this unusual, stressful time.”

This analysis used data from the first of several strategic waves of a national monitoring survey which started in May 2020 in partnership with Maru/Matchbox.

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