Mental health in jeopardy as pandemic continues

Oct 13, 2021

According to the results of a recent survey conducted by the College of Family Physicians of Canada, nearly 9 out of 10 family doctors across Canada have stated they are increasingly concerned about patients’ emotional stress related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Specifically, the results of the survey show that 87% of family physicians are “highly concerned” about their patients’ mental health (compared to 80% revealed by last year’s survey results), while 67% are equally as concerned about their patients’ alcohol and drug use.

“The amount and severity of mental health symptoms that I’m seeing in my practice day to day now is remarkable,” said Dr. Noah Ivers, a family medicine physician at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “I try to support people through that day in and day out, as best I can. On the one hand, it’s a privilege to be there for them, especially when many don’t have other sources of support. On the other hand, it’s emotionally exhausting.”

In her interview with CBC News, Dr. Onye Nnorom, the president of the Black Physicians’ Association of Ontario and a member of the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has gone on much longer than anticipated, taking a disproportionate toll on vulnerable populations such as seniors, people who don’t have adequate housing and racialized communities.

“Many have argued that this is also a mental health pandemic,” said Nnorom. “And there’s not a lot of resources available to meet those needs.”

Furthermore, Dr. Nnorom said she has noticed an increase in patients relying more on drugs, alcohol and nicotine to cope with feelings of loneliness, boredom, stress and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.

Dr. Javed Alloo, who practises community-based family medicine in Toronto with a focus on mental health, has suggested that traumatic events faced by people during the pandemic will have long lasting implications for how they cope, think and adapt. In addition, Dr. Alloo said that individuals who have experienced such trauma are at higher risk for chronic pain and substance abuse problems and will need support even after society has gone back to “normal.”

However, Dr. Alloo has added that such support currently does not exist on the scale needed.

The survey has also demonstrated that 15% of family physicians said they were burned out, which is a three-fold increase from a previous survey conducted in May 2020.

“It’s a big shift,” said Dr. Steve Slade, research director of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. “There’s also a lot more family doctors who are saying that they’re just not doing well. They’re feeling exhausted and coping is becoming difficult.”

In contrast to the beginning of the pandemic when patients were less inclined to see their family doctors, more than half of family physicians are currently reporting they’re working beyond their desired capacity. Dr. Nnorom points out that, “all of us have had times that we dealt with a physician who was short tempered or seemed distracted, it’s likely because they were pouring from an empty cup.”