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Study by the Université de Sherbrooke on the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic

Anxiety and depression a “second disaster” in Quebec

Sherbrooke, le 29 septembre 2020 – New data reveal that Quebeckers are feeling particularly shaken by the pandemic but that targeted public health measures could help attenuate their distress.

In June, an international survey conducted by a team from the Université de Sherbrooke showed that pandemic-induced anxiety and depression were present in Canada and Quebec, although to a lesser degree compared to the United States. As we embark on the fall season and the long winter months ahead, how are Quebeckers feeling in light of the pandemic? Seven regional public health departments wanted to get a portrait of the current situation along with recommendations adapted to their regional realities.

Complementary survey conducted in Quebec

- Survey conducted by Léger from September 4 to 14, 2020 among 6,261 adults.
- Seven health regions in Quebec represented: Mauricie-et-Centre-du-Québec, Estrie, Montréal, Laval, Lanaudière, Laurentides, and Montérégie.

A look at seven health regions in Quebec

This complementary component of the team’s international study has shown that anxiety and depression are affecting many people in Quebec. In fact, one in five adults reported having symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety disorder or major depression in the two weeks prior to the survey.

The situation is even more acute in urban areas, and particularly in Montreal, where no fewer than one in four adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the same period.

“What we’re seeing now in Quebec are levels of depression and anxiety that are considerably higher than what was observed pre-pandemic. These levels are similar to those observed in Fort McMurray six months after the 2016 forest fires,” explained professor and researcher Mélissa Généreux from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the Université de Sherbrooke.

Young adults, Anglophones and health care workers among the most affected

In all regions, some groups are more affected by these psychosocial impacts than others. The study found that the pandemic is affecting three groups in particular: young adults (especially those between the ages of 18 and 24), Anglophones, and health care workers.

“In our study, 37% of adults aged 18 to 24 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in the previous two weeks. It is concerning that a significant portion of young people are not doing well. It is equally striking that Anglophones are twice as likely as Francophones to have anxiety or depressive symptoms,” explained Professor Généreux.

These more intense symptoms could be explained by greater direct impacts from the pandemic, a higher degree of stigmatization, more mistrust in authorities, the use of different sources to get information about COVID-19, and more false beliefs among these two population groups (young adults and Anglophones).

Study highlights: 

  • People with children at home who are experiencing psychological problems from the pandemic only have anxiety, whereas people with a low level of education are more likely to experience depression.
  • Health care workers are at a greater risk of experiencing the psychosocial impact of the pandemic, and depressive symptoms are particularly common among this group (24.5%).
  • Stigma currently affects nearly 1 in 10 adults. The main victims of stigma are people who have contracted COVID-19 or have been in contact with a COVID-19 case, young adults, health care workers, Anglophones, immigrants (especially those of Asian descent), and Montrealers. This stigma doubles the risk of experiencing anxiety or depression.
  • Currently, only 2 out of 3 adults would be willing to get an approved COVID-19 vaccine, whereas 16% would refuse to get it and 19% would be reluctant to get it. The rate of people who would refuse to get the vaccine has been on the rise since the start of summer and is significantly higher than what is usually observed for early childhood immunization (less than 5%).
  • The factors associated with mental health disorders during a pandemic are the same as those associated with not wanting to get vaccinated. Acting on these factors could help us not only address mental health problems but also fight the spread of the virus (through better vaccination rates in the population).

What factors cause these mental health problems?

During a pandemic, several factors can increase or decrease someone’s chances of developing a mental health disorder.

“First is a sense of coherence, which is our ability to understand, control, and make sense of stressful events. This first factor is by far the one most strongly related to psychological health during a pandemic. People with a high sense of coherence are four times less likely to suffer from major depression.

“A sense of coherence influences how people internalize information through different channels about the coronavirus. People with a low sense of coherence tend to have more false beliefs, which fuels their anxiety and depression,” stated Professor Généreux.

In addition to a sense of coherence and false beliefs, factors such as feeling stigmatized, having little trust in authorities, perceiving COVID-19 as a high threat to oneself or one’s family, and regularly turning to the Internet for information about the coronavirus can lead to anxiety or depressive symptoms.

Mitigating the pandemic’s impact on morale

In addition to collecting data, the survey team has issued recommendations to address the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic. “We must recognize the extent of the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic in Quebec, which many are calling a ‘second disaster’,” explained Professor Généreux. “We have effective solutions to mitigate these effects, and we now need to put effort and resources into implementing them.”

Four recommended actions

  1. Deploy specialized psychiatric teams to help the population.
  2. Better equip front-line services and set up a sentinel network of citizens trained in psychological first aid.
  3. Strengthen community support, for example, by providing better support for essential employees, especially health care workers.
  4. Adapt basic services, for example, by implementing mechanisms to meet the psychosocial needs of vulnerable groups (e.g., food insecurity, homelessness).

About the research project

A multidisciplinary team from the Université de Sherbrooke is conducting an international comparative analysis of the influence of communication strategies and media discourse on the psychological and behavioural response of populations to COVID-19. The team members include Prof. Gabriel Blouin-Genest (politics), Prof. Marie-Ève Carignan (communications), Prof. Olivier Champagne-Poirier (communications), Prof. Marc D. David (communications), Prof. Mélissa Généreux (public health), and Prof. Mathieu Roy (public health), in addition to international researchers in seven other countries. 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 analyze 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.

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

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