Actions to control the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing and shutdowns did the job to help flatten the curve of rising caseloads. However, those same measures have led to the deterioration of the population’s overall mental health, according to a new study recently released by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) that confirms that the pandemic’s health consequences wouldn’t end at the virus. The detailed PHAC report paints a gloomy picture of a once-happy Canada now crushed by job loss, financial distress, death, familial separation, isolation and the myriad other ways the COVID-19 pandemic has directly and indirectly harmed Canadian society. To make matters worse, the measures taken to protect Canadians from COVID-19 are the same ones thwarting any progress being made in ending the opioid epidemic.
The PHAC report contains input from frontline workers who say that social restrictions mean more people using opioids in a dangerous manner: alone, contributing to the increase in overdose-related fatalities. At least one supervised consumption site in Ottawa ended its physical distancing measures after several clients overdosed in the queue to enter.
The long, gloomy winter to come
With social distancing measures and limits on social gatherings in place, Canadians experience a type of isolation that descended on us without warning or preparation. And it’s not just the vulnerable and marginalized among us who have seen notable drops in mental wellness. They may not be dependent on opioids, but Canadians of all ages, from coast to coast, are increasing their substance use.
In 2018, 68 percent of Canadians age 15 years and older reported excellent or very good self-perceived mental health. According to Statistics Canada data, this figure dropped to 54 percent at the start of the COVID-related isolation measures and further to 48 percent in early May. With gyms, spas, sports leagues, and other recreational options closed down, Canadians have seen nearly all chances to socialize diminish.
Seventy percent of Canadians who responded to a recent Statistics Canada survey said they were concerned about maintaining social ties, while 54 percent of respondents with kids said they were very or overly worried about their children’s loneliness or social isolation.
One thing is for sure, Canada went from being regarded as happy — ranking ninth out of 156 countries, according to a 2019 UN report — to be one that is merely trying to cope.
Not All Substances Feed the Growing Depression
By early summer this year, close to one in five Canadians (19 percent) reported an increase in alcohol, cannabis, and tobacco consumption.
Interestingly, there was also an outspoken and well-journaled uptick in people experimenting with psychedelics at home.
Instead of venturing out into the world through travel, career and social experiences, so-called psychonauts were turning inward with the help of psilocybin, LSD or DMT to find peace, reflection, happiness and connection in a world where suddenly touch, and closeness is forbidden.
In the wake of an anxiety-filled US election—one that saw two states approve pro-psychedelic measures, by the way—we learn from JAMA Psychiatry that a rigorous study of 27 people found that psilocybin treatments could be more effective than conventionally-administered antidepressant medication.
Participants reported a reduction in depression within their first session and sustained at that reduced level through the second psilocybin session up to the one-month follow-up, says Alan Davis, one author of the study.
We are rightfully excited about the above study results because beneath substance use disorders are two possible root causes. The first is genetic. The second is trauma, which is thought to cause a whole complex spectrum of mood and behaviour disorders that psychedelic-assisted therapy could assist in unraveling.
It remains federally illegal in Canada to experiment at home with psychedelics for our mental health, and is perhaps not wise for those with limited experience who are not undergoing any level of preparation or follow-up care. Only a few have access to these substances at this point. But we can’t help but wonder if psychedelic medicines can’t alleviate some of the mental health issues that COVID-19 either created or brought to light.