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International survey by the Université de Sherbrooke on the psychosocial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

Quebeckers less affected psychologically compared to the United States

Sherbrooke, le 17 juin 2020 – Pandemic-related anxiety and depression are less widespread in Canada and Quebec than in the United States. This is the finding of an international survey to measure the influence of media and government discourse on people’s psychological and behavioural responses.

The data was collected as part of the first phase of a multidisciplinary and inter-university study conducted by
Dr. Mélissa Généreux in collaboration with such team members as Prof. Marie-Ève Carignan, Prof. Marc D. David, Prof. Gabriel Blouin-Genest, Prof. Mathieu Roy, and course instructor Olivier Champagne-Poirier. This data is an addition to the preliminary results released in April 2020.

From May 29 to June 12, 2020, the research team surveyed 7,791 people in 7 countries and regions: Canada, the United States, England, Switzerland, Hong Kong, the Philippines and New Zealand. The respondents included 1,501 people from Canada and 435 from Quebec.

Psychological problems exacerbated by the crisis

Although psychological health seems to have slightly improved since the peak of the first COVID-19 wave in April, current levels of depression in Canada and the United States are 3 and 4 times higher than before the pandemic, respectively.

As a comparison for Canada, current levels of depression (and anxiety) are similar to those observed in Fort McMurray 6 months after the devastating wildfires in 2016.

The global crisis is clearly having an impact on wellness. In some places, however, people seem to be better protected psychologically. This is particularly the case in Canada and even more so in Quebec.

Canada and Quebec are faring better

Out of the 7 countries and regions analyzed, the United States appears to be the most affected in terms of psychological health (generalized anxiety: 31%; major depression: 28.2%), whereas Canada has somewhat less generalized anxiety (19.6%) and less depression (22.2%).

However, there are significant variations among the Canadian provinces, with Quebec’s anxiety rate at 13.1%, compared to 23.4% in Ontario and 19.7% for the rest of the country. Quebec also appears less affected by major depression than the other Canadian provinces. In fact, the rate of major depression in Quebec (17%) is significantly lower than this rate in Ontario (26.2%) and in the rest of Canada (21.3%).

This reveals that the virus’s speed of spread over a given territory is not the only factor that can trigger psychological problems, as why else would Quebec be doing better than Ontario in terms of mental health despite having the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Canada.

Sense of coherence: a robust protection factor

The preliminary data from this survey (carried out in April) revealed that the main psychological stressors involved relate to stigma and to the fact that the pandemic is perceived as a high or very high threat to individuals and families. While these stressors are still present, isolation and financial hardship triggered by the pandemic have taken a toll on the psychological health of some people and have increased the risk of generalized anxiety and depression by about 50%.

The results from Phase 1 also add another dimension to the responses with regard to protective factors. For example, in Canada, people with a high sense of coherence were 3 times less likely to experience generalized anxiety disorder or major depression. A sense of coherence is our ability to understand an event, make sense of it, and find solutions to cope with it. This ability is therefore essential in a context of adversity, as has been the case in recent months.

Of all the factors examined in this study, a sense of coherence is by far the one most strongly related to psychological health during a pandemic, and even more so than isolation and financial hardship. Professor Mélissa Généreux therefore believes that we must address this sense of coherence and its impact on psychological health. “Beyond the adverse effects of the lockdown and financial hardship, our study suggests that confusion, mistrust and misinformation are detrimental to the psychological health of Canadians. More than ever, we need access to accurate information. This information should not unnecessarily fuel our fears but rather help us understand the situation, make sense of it, and find available resources in order to adapt,” she said.

Reliability of information sources

The hypothesis underlying this survey is that media coverage of the pandemic modulates our perception of the crisis and therefore influences our individual resilience.

One finding from Phase 1 was that using social media as a regular source of information about the coronavirus is associated, in Canada, with an increased risk of generalized anxiety or major depression. Social networks appear to influence mental health in the same way as isolation or financial hardship.

Another finding was that few Canadians (12.7%) have a high level of trust in the media compared to residents of the United States (22.3%). In Canada, health and government experts are considered as more reliable sources. The same picture emerges in Quebec, where the vast majority of people (72.9%) turn to the provincial government’s discourse as a source of information.

A telling statistic is that, in the United States, only 14.6% of respondents said they have a high level of confidence in the information provided by their government. Could this be related to the high levels of anxiety and depression in this country? This is what the next survey phases will attempt to uncover.

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