Mental Health Week: What Has the Past Year Taught Us About Mental Health?

Mental Health Week: What Has the Past Year Taught Us About Mental Health?

One year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, people across the globe continue to face serious mental health challenges. Even before the pandemic, Canada was facing a mental health crisis that saw one in five people managing diagnosable health conditions and 1.6 million people reporting unmet mental health care needs (CHMA, 2020). In 2020, 78% of employees globally said that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health (Oracle, 2020).

Now in 2021, recent studies are showing that mental health is at all-time low for many populations. Even more concerning is the implication that beyond the current pandemic crisis is a long tail of mental health effects that could have implications for years to come.

Despite the growing number of people experiencing mental health issues, only 44% of employees feel comfortable talking about their mental health with managers, and 38% of employees say that their company has not even asked them about their mental health (Qualtrics, 2020).

The last year has shown that mental health needs are both chronically underfunded and growing exceedingly common for those in the workforce. Supporting employees’ mental health needs to be a priority for organizations who want to help keep employees at work and save money on their bottom lines.

What’s Going on With Our Mental Health?

2020 saw a decline in mental health across the board, and the most recent 2021 data shows a continuing trend of mental health and substance use impacts.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has completed seven surveys over the past year that show a mirror progression of mental health with the waves of the pandemic. Their most recent March 2021 survey showed that 1 in 5 Canadians report high levels of mental distress and that levels of anxiety, depressive symptoms, loneliness, and binge drinking were nearly as high as they were in May 2020 (CAMH, 2021). In January 2021, 11% of adults reported thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days (KFF, 2021).

Similar surveys on the mental health of Ontarians show a dramatic decrease since previous polls over the summer. The Canadian Mental Health Association reports the following statistics:

  • 36 per cent of Ontarians say they’re experiencing very high or high stress (up from 30 per cent in the summer)
  • 35 per cent are feeling very high or high anxiety (up from 30 per cent in the summer)
  • 17 per cent say they’re always or very often depressed (up from 13 per cent in May)
  • More than one quarter of Ontarians (27 per cent) are using more substances to cope (up from 21 per cent in the summer)
  • Nearly eight in 10 Ontarians (79 per cent) can see how COVID-19 is negatively impacting the mental health of others

Lack of work-life balance, isolation, burnout, stress, job loss and financial strain, and worry over health concerns have all shown to be contributing factors to negative mental health over the course of the pandemic.

Who is Affected?

The pandemic has affected everyone across the world in some shape or form, and those who previously did not suffer from mental health conditions are now reporting instances of declined mental health. However, not everyone is evenly affected by these mental health issues. Those who are at more risk and have been disproportionately affected over the past year include the following, based on recent poll data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey and KFF Health Tracking Poll Data, reported by KFF:

  • Young adults – 56% of young adults report negative mental health symptoms, and young adults are 10-15% more likely to report substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
  • Those with job loss or lower incomes – 53% reported symptoms of mental illness.
  • Women, particularly those with children – 49% of women report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder.
  • Communities of colour – Black and Hispanic communities traditionally face challenges accessing mental health care; 48% and 46% report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder, respectively.
  • Essential workers – 42% report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, 25% report substance abuse, and 22% report suicidal thoughts.

What Are the Barriers?

Recognizing the need to improve psychological health in the workplace is a good step, but getting mental health access to those who need it may prove more of a challenge.

When surveyed about barriers preventing people from accessing support for mental health, 22% of respondents said they couldn’t afford it, 17% said they didn’t know where to get help or who to ask, and 12% said they were embarrassed to ask for help (Benefits Canada, 2020). A survey conducted by The Canadian Psychological Association reported similar results:

  • 78% of survey respondents said access to psychological services cost too much and 73% said that they weren’t covered by provincial health plans.
  • 68% said wait times are too long.
  • 66% said psychological services aren’t covered by their employers’ health plans.

The medium annual maximum for counselling services is $1,000, with 68% of plan sponsors having a maximum of even less. The Canadian Psychological Association recommends 15 to 20 sessions costing up to $4,000.

Financial barriers, lack of education and awareness, stigma, and inability to access psychological services during the pandemic have all proven challenging to employees who need the support the most.

What Will We See in the Future?

Based on research from previous pandemics and national emergencies, we can expect that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 will last much longer than the physical impact. Some of the long-term effects of events like SARS, Chernobyl, and Hurricane Katrina included post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and insomnia (BBC, 2020). An analysis of the psychological toll on healthcare providers found that psychological distress can last up to three years after an outbreak (The BMJ, 2020). Those who have faced job loss, isolation, and uncertainty are also at a higher risk of mortality in the future—one study projects that as many as 75,000 people will die from substance abuse and suicide as a result of COVID-19 over the next nine years (Well Being Trust & The Robert Graham Center, 2020).

In addition to the projections, research has also shown that those who have contracted COVID-19 are at a higher risk of developing neurological and psychiatric diagnoses. Studies show that individuals being diagnosed with a mental health disorder after having COVID-19 are as high as 18% (The Lancet). Diagnoses that have been associated with patients post-COVID include dementia, anxiety and mood disorders, psychotic disorders, and substance use disorders. Whether symptoms are manifested from the illness itself or from, it is clear that there will be an emerging population who is more susceptible to mental health issues and will require additional support to stay at and return to work.

What Can Employees Do?

  • Develop resiliency tools. 
  • Practice self-care. 
  • Practice daily mindfulness. 
  • Focus on problems you can control.  
  • Stick to a routine to create stability.
  • Cut out negative self talk.
  • Eliminate negative coping strategies. 
  • Contact your emotional supports when you are going through a challenge.
  • Get help from a healthcare professional, your EAP, or a distress line if you are not feeling like yourself.

What Can Employers Do?

Employers should consider investing in employee health by intervening positively in the workplace and making mental health care more accessible. Surveys show that the most common resources employees want are mental health training and a more open and supportive work culture that supports mental health (Mindshare Partners, 2019).

  • Develop strong psychological health programs. Prioritize your team’s mental health just as much as their physical health.
  • Look for signs of distress. Your employees may not know how to ask for help.
  • Check in regularly. Let your employees know you are accessible and that you care about their mental health. Listen to your employees with empathy, attention, and respect.
  • Offer mental health resources. Provide employees virtual training on ways to improve mental health. You can also request the assistance of an Occupational Therapist to help employees find tools and strategies through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

How Can Gowan Consulting Help?

Occupational Therapists are the ideal mental health professionals for supporting your employees. Their knowledge of the workplace allows them to help modify jobs and environments and give employees to tools to develop personal strategies. They are not just talk therapists—they are activity and strategy-based and they empower employees to take ownership of their function and productivity. They use strategies of work-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is an evidence-based approach to ensuring that employees can have better self-care and resiliency.

Gowan Consulting is a national organization with more than 150 Occupational Therapists across Canada. We provide Occupational Therapy coaching virtually and onsite. Ease of access and proactive onsite or virtual support ensures that employees can stay at or return to work.

We want to help your organization – make a referral here or contact us at to learn more.

Mental Health Training

  • Mindful May: FREE Mental Health Conversations Webinars – In May we are offering four free webinars on the topic of mental health. These 30-minute sessions will cover the topics of crisis fatigue, dealing with worry and uncertainty, mindfulness and self-care, and creating a psychologically healthy workplace. Sign up today to reserve your spot!
  • Implementing the CSA Work Disability Standards: This interactive virtual program includes three hours of virtual training and online modules to help employers understand the components of the Work Disability Management System Standards published in 2020.
  • Manager Mental Health Training is now running all year long! Our next session takes place on May 18, 2021. Get a full list of dates and more information on the sessions here.
  • Manager’s Toolkit and Webinar – Our FREE Manager’s Toolkit now comes with a webinar to help provide strategies and resources for employees’ return to work post-quarantine.

Works Cited

6-month neurological and psychiatric outcomes in 236379 survivors of COVID-19: a retrospective cohort study using electronic health records, The Lancet, Maxime Taquet, John R Geddes, Masud Husain, Sierra Luciano, Paul J Harrison, Published online April 6, 2021,

One year into pandemic, about one in five Canadians reporting high levels of mental distress, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, April 13, 2021,

Third poll in CMHA Ontario series indicates mental health impact of COVID-19 at all-time high, Canadian Mental Health Association, March 15, 2021,

Is private and public health care ready for a mental-health tsunami?, Benefits Canada, Sonya Felix, November 27, 2020,

56% of Canadians say coronavirus negatively impacting mental health: survey, Benefits Canada, May 11, 2020,

How much do we actually know about workplace mental health?, Mindshare Partners, 2019,

Occurrence, prevention, and management of the psychological effects of emerging virus outbreaks on healthcare workers: rapid review and meta-analysis, Steve Kisely et al., The BMJ, doi: 

The COVID Pandemic Could Lead to 75,000 Additional Deaths from Alcohol and Drug Misuse and Suicide, Well Being Trust & The Robert Graham Center Analysis, 2020,

Covid-19 has increased anxiety for many of us, and experts warn a sizable minority could be left with mental health problems that outlast the pandemic, Maddy Savage, BBC, October 28, 2020,

The other COVID-19 crisis: Mental health, Qualtrics, April 14, 2020,

As Uncertainty Remains, Anxiety and Stress Reach a Tipping Point at Work, Oracle, 2020,

The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use, KFF, February 10, 2021,

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