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Canada’s Mental Health Crisis: A Deepening Concern in a Changing World

Canada's mental health crisis

In September 2022, Statistics Canada unveiled the results of its decennial Mental Health and Access to Care Survey, revealing a stark reality: more Canadians are grappling with depression and anxiety than they were a decade ago. This worrisome trend is affecting people of all ages, but it’s hitting the younger generation, particularly women, the hardest.

Over the past decade, the number of Canadians diagnosed with major depressive disorder has surged by a staggering 62 percent. Today, 7.6 percent of the population, or one in 13 Canadians, meet the diagnostic criteria for this mental health condition. Meanwhile, anxiety disorders have doubled, with 7.1 percent of Canadians now grappling with social anxiety disorder. It’s not all bleak, as substance use disorder rates have slightly fallen, primarily driven by a decline in alcoholism.

What’s especially alarming is that this surge in mental health issues is most pronounced among young Canadians. One in four Canadian women aged 15 to 24 qualify for social anxiety disorder, and nearly one in five meet the criteria for major depressive disorder, representing a significant increase from a decade ago. For young men, the situation is different, with fewer mood disorders but a higher prevalence of substance use disorders and suicide.

Several factors contribute to this unsettling rise in mental health challenges. Canada’s stagnant economy and the rising cost of living are substantial stressors, with economic concerns significantly impacting mental health. A recent poll revealed that 39 percent of Canadians reported that economic issues, including debt, inflation, rent or mortgage payments, and food costs, were contributing to their anxiety and depression.

Furthermore, young Canadians are the first generation to grow up with social media as an integral part of their lives, and the impact on their mental health is becoming evident. Social media has altered the way we interact and communicate, fostering increased social comparison and cyberbullying. A quarter of Canadian teenagers and young adults report being bullied or harassed online, with even higher rates among those who are constantly online or struggle to make friends.

Research by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt indicates that the proliferation of social media and smartphone usage, beginning around 2012, has adversely affected the mental health of young women, helping explain some of the gender disparities observed in recent data.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath also play a significant role in this surge of mental health issues. Lockdowns, isolation, fear of sickness, and growing political polarization have all taken a toll on the Canadian psyche. Income disparities during the pandemic were closely associated with increased depression and anxiety, as were the experiences of front-line workers.

The federal government has taken several steps to address the escalating mental health crisis, including funding an online portal for mental health and addiction resources, announcing a 988 mental health crisis hotline, and allocating $12 million to develop wellness hubs for community-based mental health care. Nevertheless, many mental health organizations believe these efforts are insufficient and are urging the government to fulfill its 2021 campaign promise of a $4.5 billion mental health transfer to the provinces.