Research finds mental health declining locally through pandemic
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the deterioration of the mental health and well-being of some Huron and Perth County residents, according to recent research presented to Huron County Council.
Dr. Leith Deacon, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, presented his research, entitled “Rural Response to COVID-19, to council at its Dec. 16, providing a sobering snapshot of the mental state of residents as the pandemic has worn on.
Deacon’s research was conducted with three University of Guelph colleagues: Dr. Wayne Caldwell, a professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, and Dr. Silvia Sarapura and Dr. Sara Epp, both assistant professors with the school.
The survey, which went live in late August, resulted in 3,300 submissions, which Deacon says is a tremendous response rate. It also included data from a wide swath of residents, ranging from those 18-29 years old up to those over 80.
The bulk of the surveys were returned from those who are either retired or working full-time, followed by those who are self-employed and employed part-time. They also received some responses from those who are unemployed, students or those who would prefer not to answer.
Deacon said that when asked to assess their physical health before March 1 and after March 1, many residents said they were in worse shape after the pandemic struck. Before March 1, 556 people classified their physical health as being excellent, which dropped to 417 after March 1. Following that trend, 1,341 people said they were in good physical health prior to March 1, compared to 1,217 who said the same after March 1.
As the physical health bar dropped, the numbers rose. Those saying they were of average physical health before March 1 rose from 541 to 575 after March 1, while 317 people said they were of satisfactory physical health after March 1, compared to 218 before March 1.
Seventy-nine people said they were in poor physical health before March 1, while that number grew to 163 after March 1.
Those trends were consistent when Huron County was broken out on its own.
The mental health aspect of the survey, however, is where Deacon said he and his team found the most concerning trends.
Across the two counties, 662 people classified their mental health as excellent. That number dropped to 368 after March 1. Those who said their mental health was good before March 1 dropped by nearly 400 from 1,373 before March 1 to just over 1,000 after March 1.
Those who said they had average mental health rose from 455 to 663 after March 1, followed by 419 people saying they had satisfactory mental health after March 1, compared to 176 before March 1.
Those who said their mental health was poor rose dramatically, with 235 saying they had poor mental health after March 1 compared to just 54 people saying their mental health was poor before March 1.
Again, the numbers from Huron County were consistent with those found across the region.
Deacon also said that alarmingly, the drop in mental health seemed more prevalent in women who responded to the survey. Thirty-eight per cent of the women surveyed found their mental health had been impacted by the pandemic, compared to 29.5 per cent of the men who responded.
Deacon said the next steps would be further analysis and highlighting the need to consider the uniqueness of rural communities, as well as promoting rural resiliency.
Bluewater Mayor Paul Klopp said the data needed to be sent along to upper-tier government officials and Huron Perth Public Health. He felt the data Deacon and his team had compiled was complete and no further research was needed.
Goderich Mayor John Grace disagreed, instead saying the team needed to “drill down” and find more data. Then, council should be acting to help those in need, who, in his opinion, were the young people. He said it’s not the area’s senior citizens who are feeling the isolation, it has been the young people.
Deacon said his team would appreciate council championing the research. He said he and his team were able to conduct the research, but not connect with any decision-makers in the hopes of supporting those who are hurting in the community, so that was his hope for council and other elected officials.
He said that what he was asked to deliver out of the research was a journal article. As for enacting change and putting supports in place for those in rural communities, that was not up to his research group.
He also said it would be a shame to waste the research, which contained “a ton of information” when compared to other surveys.
Having said that, Deacon said the team has already received requests from seven other rural counties to conduct similar research. He said this kind of research has been conducted in Ontario’s city centres, but not in rural communities, which is what made his team’s findings unique.
Huron East Mayor Bernie MacLellan recommended that Deacon and his team present their findings at the coming conference of the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA).
Mayor Jim Ginn said he wasn’t against supporting a presentation being made at the ROMA conference, but rather suggested that the county needs to be acting now. Ginn said he felt the vaccine would be available in the area sooner than many have estimated, but that January is likely to be the darkest period of the pandemic, making it challenging for those who are struggling with declining mental health.
Council pledged to engage upper-tier elected officials and Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson and bring them in on the research.