Blue Line

CMHA and UBC release data on emotional impact of the pandemic for Mental Health Week

May 3, 2021  By Blue Line Staff

May 3, 2021 – The pandemic is taking an emotional toll on people in Canada, as 77 per cent of adults report feeling so-called negative emotions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The five most common responses across Canada were ‘worried or anxious,’ ‘bored,’ ‘stressed,’ ‘lonely or isolated’ and ‘sad’. The third round of data from the Assessing the Impacts of COVID-19 on Mental Health national monitoring survey was released on May 3 by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in partnership with UBC researchers to mark CMHA’s 70th annual Mental Health Week. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates in our society is complex. Suicidal thoughts and feelings in the general population remain elevated at 8 per cent, compared to 6 per cent in the spring 2020 and 10 per cent in the fall of 2020—substantially higher than the 2.5 per cent observed pre-pandemic in 2016.

Overall, 41 per cent of Canadians report a decline in their mental health since the onset of the pandemic, compared to 38 per cent in the spring and 40 per cent in the fall of 2020. Also, consistent with the first and second rounds of data, the decline is more pronounced in people who are unemployed due to COVID (61 per cent), those with a pre-existing mental health condition (54 per cent), those aged 18-24 (50 per cent), students (48 per cent), those who have a disability (47 per cent) or identify as LGBTQ2+ (46 per cent).

The good news is most Canadians (79 per cent) say they are coping at least fairly well with the stress of the pandemic, using approaches such as: walking or exercising outside (51 per cent), connecting with family and friends virtually (43 per cent), maintaining a healthy lifestyle (40 per cent), keeping up to date with relevant information (38 per cent) and doing a hobby (37 per cent). 


Canadians also report they have increased their screen time (57 per cent), are consuming more food (28 per cent), are doing more online shopping for things they don’t need (18 per cent), and are using more substances like drugs and alcohol due to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic (13 per cent). 

“While it’s discouraging to think that so many Canadians are feeling upset, difficult emotions may actually be an appropriate response to a major event like a global pandemic,” says Margaret Eaton, National CEO of CMHA. “It’s a sign of good mental health when someone can experience a full range of emotions, and recognize, understand and manage how they feel—even when it’s uncomfortable. Being able to make an emotional connection is also part of how we seek comfort and reassurance from people in our lives.”

Emotions arise in response to life events and experiences and can initiate changes in the body and in our behaviours. Some emotions are a positive experience, such as feeling calm, hopeful or secure and others are more challenging, such as anxiety, sadness, anger and hopelessness. Our emotional responses to significant events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, both reflect and contribute to our overall mental health status. 

“Good mental health is not about being happy all the time but having appropriate emotional and behavioural responses to stressors and life events,” said lead researcher Emily Jenkins, a professor of nursing at UBC who studies mental health and substance use. “The pandemic has caused significant loss—of loved ones, of connection, of feelings of security. This can contribute to very challenging emotions that are important to acknowledge and process. Hiding your emotions can prevent you from communicating with other people in your life and empathizing with what loved ones are going through. Sharing our very normal feelings of sadness, fear and worry is particularly important during this unusual time of stress, uncertainty and loss.”  

Research shows that putting your negative emotions into words disrupts and reduces activity in the amygdala, the part of your brain that drives your responses to stress and fear. Having a specific label for what we’re feeling increases activity in the prefrontal and temporal regions of the brain. The act of naming our emotions can actually help us feel calmer and help us understand what we’re going through. However, it is important to know when anxious feelings become a cause for concern. Feeling anxious is not the same as having a diagnosed anxiety disorder, but our emotions give us clues to how we’re really doing. Those experiencing the most challenging emotions related to the pandemic were also the most likely to report a decline in their mental health, as well as suicidal thoughts. 

“Mental health is something we can protect, not just something we can lose,” says Eaton. “Factors that promote well-being include big-picture things like social and economic security, freedom from violence, harm and trauma, and access to mental health resources. It also involves smaller things like making healthier daily choices, connecting with loved ones and learning more about ourselves. When we understand and work with our emotions, this helps protect our mental health—during tough times like the pandemic and throughout all the ups and downs of life.” 

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