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Initial results from survey on the pandemic and its psychological and behavioural impacts

COVID-19: Stress and anxiety very present in Quebec and Canada, aggravated by misinformation

Sherbrooke, le 22 avril 2020 – A Canadian survey of the psychosocial impacts of COVID-19 carried out recently by an interdisciplinary team from the Université de Sherbrooke has provided clear initial results: Canadians are already feeling the psychological impacts of the pandemic, with a quarter of respondents showing significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress and anxiety.

Information a key factor in these concerns

This survey of 600 people (300 in Quebec and 300 outside Quebec) conducted between April 8 and 11 shows that Quebeckers seem more confident in their government compared to residents of the rest of Canada, and more of them feel they have the information they need to fully understand the coronavirus (83.7%) compared to respondents from the rest of the country (60.8%). Some also seem to believe in different conspiracy theories and “fake news,” which may exacerbate the stress factors related to the psychosocial impacts.

Another survey will be conducted in the coming weeks in Canada and 6 other countries. With a sample of a few thousand people, results from this second study will let the research team compare data across different regions and monitor changes in the psychological and behavioural response to the pandemic as well as the influence of government communication strategies and different information presented in traditional media and on social media.

Highlights about the psychological impacts

  • The data suggest that one in four Canadians (25.5%) suffers from probable post-traumatic stress related to the pandemic and that an equally high percentage (25.4%) suffer from probable generalized anxiety.
  • However, probable post-traumatic stress related to the pandemic is more frequent outside Quebec (27.5%) than inside the province (18.8%).
  • The same is true for generalized anxiety (28.8% outside Quebec versus 14.2% inside the province).
  • The main psychological stressors relate to stigma and to the fact that the pandemic is perceived as a high or very high threat to individuals and families.
  • Quebeckers appear more likely to adhere to voluntary or mandatory isolation measures (88.6%) than people outside Quebec (72.8%), which does not appear to be associated with a higher level of anxiety or post-traumatic stress.
  • Among the different stress factors mentioned, one in particular seems to reduce the risk of the pandemic’s psychological impacts: confidence in authorities. In fact, half of Quebeckers have a very high degree of confidence in authorities (49.6%), compared to 26.8% for those outside Quebec, which could explain the psychological differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

Dr. Mélissa Généreux, a professor and researcher in public health and preventive medicine at UdeS and the Institut universitaire de première ligne en santé et services sociaux of the CIUSSS de l’Estrie - CHUS, believes that it is essential to pay attention to everyone’s psychological health during this crisis. “What is concerning about this data is that they confirm the pandemic has had a significant psychological impact on Canadians. It will be crucial to monitor how these psychological impacts change over the coming weeks and to adapt available support accordingly,” she said.

Highlights about information from traditional media and social media

  • 51.3% of respondents in Canada believe that the coronavirus is a natural phenomenon. In surveys conducted in March 2020 that included similar questions, 57% of people in France and 43% of Americans said that they believe the coronavirus came about naturally.[1]
  • 52.7% of respondents were aware that they had been exposed to news about the coronavirus that turned out not to be true.
  • 38.4% believe that their government is hiding important information about the coronavirus.
  • 15.0% believe that the pharmaceutical industry is involved in spreading the coronavirus.
  • 21.3% believe that there is already a drug that can treat the coronavirus.
  • 7.8% of respondents in Quebec and 15.7% of respondents elsewhere in Canada think that there is a connection between 5G technology and the coronavirus (significant difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada).[2]
  • Respondents who are more distrustful of authorities and do not fully support government guidelines seem more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
  • Belief in conspiracy theories and false news stories appears higher among younger people and people without a university education, which is in keeping with what was found by Conspiracy Watch. “Fake news” is therefore more likely to become entrenched among younger people.
  • Respondents who tend to get their information from official authorities or traditional media seem less likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

“From these early findings, we can deduce that at least one in ten people in Canada believes some sort of conspiracy about the cause of the current pandemic,” explained Professor Marie-Eve Carignan, a co-investigator in the study and a specialist in risk and crisis communication and in media-related social and political issues. “A comparison of the data also shows that conspiracy responses are related and form an organized belief marked by distrust in science and government authorities.”

About the research project

A multidisciplinary team from the Université de Sherbrooke received a $500,000 grant to carry out an international study on the psychological and behavioural response to the pandemic and the influence of communication strategies, news from traditional and social media sources, and other stressors and protective factors. The study is entitled The role of communication strategies and media discourse in shaping psychological and behavioral response to the COVID-19 outbreak: an international comparative analysis.

The UdeS team is comprised of Prof. Gabriel Blouin-Genest, Prof. Marie-Eve Carignan, Prof. Marc D. David, Dr. Mélissa Généreux and Prof. Mathieu Roy. The international members of the team include researchers from six countries so far who work in strategic communication, epidemiology, information and journalism, medicine, politics, psychology, public health, and other fields. The team is supported by Professor Jean-Herman Guay (politics) and by the UNESCO Chair in the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Extremism, in particular by its co-holder, Professor David Morin (politics).

The project’s main goal is to provide a macro-analysis of people’s perceptions and interpretations of public health messages (from the World Health Organization and governments) and other sources of information (from the media and other sources) as well as the psychosocial impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on individuals.

[1] Sources: Pew Research Center Survey, American adult population, March 10 to 16, 2020. Fondation Jean-Jaurès, Conspiracy Watch, representative sample of the French population aged 18 and over, March 24 to 26, 2020.

[2] This false report was identified by the WHO Myth Busters.

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Geneviève Lussier, Media Relations Advisor
Communications Department
Université de Sherbrooke | 819-212-3813 |