Pandemic Tracking Has to Meet People Where They Are

Much of what we know about COVID-19's impact has focused on big city dwellers. But how has the pandemic hit mental health in rural communities?


To say the COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly every aspect of our daily lives would be an understatement. From the obvious adverse physical health effects, to the flourishing of online misinformation and conspiracy theories, to the environmental impacts of masks, gloves, and wipes — researchers have uncovered the countless ways in which the pandemic wreaked havoc.

Given this wide scope of effects, it should not come as surprise that the mental health of Canadians was also negatively affected by the pandemic. This is precisely what a new study by researchers from the University of Guelph demonstrates, specifically in the context of rural Canada.

Urban v.s. rural

What makes this study particularly notable is its focus on rurality. As the authors point out, the majority of studies examining the effect of the pandemic on mental health focus on urban metropolitan areas. Given that nearly a third of Canadians live in non-urban or rural areas, greater research is needed in these regions to ensure that policy decisions reflect the needs of all Canadians.

Additionally, rural regions also feature a number of unique characteristics that may have resulted in different pandemic-related effects. Some that the authors highlight include limited access to broadband internet and remote work, an elevated role of small businesses, and the importance of agricultural businesses.

The survey

For this pilot study, the research team focused on rural Ontario, or areas that were not Census Metropolitan Areas — defined as “having a population of 100,000 or more, with 50,000 or more in the core, and [including] all neighbouring town municipalities where 50% or more of the workforce commutes to the core.” The two counties surveyed in this pilot study were Perth and Huron Counties.

In partnership with a number of local programs, charities, and government bodies, the researchers launched a survey that was eventually completed by almost 3,500 residents. The survey was structured into five sections: demographics, individual well-being, social behaviour, mental health, and risk planning. Crucially, participants completed the survey three different times — before the pandemic (March 1, 2020), since the start of the pandemic, and predicted responses for when the pandemic ended.

The results

In accordance with similar studies elsewhere, the researchers found that residents’ self-assessed mental health was negatively affected by the pandemic, with a more prominent effect for women. As the authors write, “there was a 12.3% decrease in self‐identifying females who assessed their mental health as ‘excellent’… [compared to]… only a 7.7% decrease in self‐identifying males who assessed their mental health as ‘excellent’ since the start of the pandemic.”

Surprisingly, and in contrast to anticipated results, there was no association between low income and self-assessed mental health. However, age was found to be associated, with those in the youngest bracket (18-29) reporting the most significant decrease in self-assessed mental health.

While these findings do not contrast radically with previous studies, they demonstrate the importance of conducting research that accurately assesses the needs and experiences of people living in all contexts.

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Borna Atrchian is an MA student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Having previously completed a Behavioural Neuroscience degree, he is passionate about issues where politics and power intersect with psychology and human behaviour. He is interested in understanding the conditions that create distrust of the scientific community, as well as finding the most effective ways to rebuild this trust.