While social distancing protocols early in the pandemic were vital in reducing the spread of COVID-19 across Canada, these measures also came with a serious mental health toll. According to a new study, lockdowns and social distancing measures exacerbated many Canadians’ preexisting mental health challenges — and after the second wave of the pandemic, more than one third of Canadians developed severe loneliness.
The study was authored by Dr. Lamson Lin Shen, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto‘s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and current assistant professor in City University of Hong Kong‘s Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences, and published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
For many Canadians, the disruption to our regular routines and social activities during COVID-19 has proven challenging. Lin’s goal was to learn how these disruptions affected Canadians’ mental health, as well as who faced the greatest risks.
To do this, he used data from the Canadian Perspective Survey Series collected during the second wave of the pandemic, in January 2021. The survey results were representative of the wider Canadian population.
Lin then made use of a machine learning model to determine just how the second wave of the pandemic — and its associated social distancing measures — had affected Canadians’ mental health. He found that 34.7% of the population, or more than one in three Canadians, experienced severe loneliness during the survey period.
“This concerning magnitude implies that during the pandemic lockdown, severe loneliness was ubiquitous in Canada,” Lin said in a press release.
Lin also found that immigrants facing pandemic-related job insecurity were one of the highest-risk groups in the Canadian population. And although Canadian-born residents facing job insecurity also reported severe loneliness, this fraction was much higher among the immigrant population (86.2% vs. 48.7%).
“It is not surprising that immigrants were particularly vulnerable to isolation and loneliness in pre-pandemic times, because they were in a new environment,” Lin said.
“What struck me the most is that my study discovered the double jeopardy of immigrant status and an unstable job situation during the COVID period.”
In addition to this, Lin’s study revealed that youth and adolescents, women, people with low educational background, and people living alone were also at-risk of developing severe loneliness.
These findings are not to say that we should avoid social distancing measures in future waves of the pandemic, but rather to highlight the importance of mental health supports during pandemic-related lockdowns. With many Canadian cities entering another wave of the pandemic as we move into the winter, it will be important to pay special attention to those groups most at-risk of developing severe loneliness and other mental health challenges.
While it may feel difficult to stay social during lockdowns, simply reaching out to your family, friends, and neighbours could help combat future “loneliness epidemics”.