Ontario’s doctors expect the demand for mental health and addictions care will exist and grow for years after the COVID-19 pandemic, if history is any guide.
OHIP data suggests that Ontarians sought more mental health care from their doctors, for issues other than substance abuse, from March to December 2020 than for the same period in 2019.
Mental health diagnoses directly attributed to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic continued for another six years afterward. Studies of people who had to isolate or quarantine during SARS showed they experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and depression afterward.
“This past year has been exceptionally, unprecedentedly, stressful,” said Dr. Samantha Hill, president of the Ontario Medical Association. “Ontarians worried about contracting COVID-19 or having a loved one do so; about finances and job security; about their children and parents tolerating the loneliness and isolation. To make matters worse, we did so without our usual coping mechanisms. We have been unable to hug each other, to surround ourselves with friends and family or to ‘get away.’ It’s been harder than usual to go to the gym, to access psychological therapy and even buy groceries. Prolonged stress like this taxes our mental and physical health. The resulting need for mental health services further increases the pandemic deficit of health care.”
OHIP data analyzed by the Ontario Medical Association suggests:
- At the start of the pandemic (March to July 2020), the number of visits to physicians for major and other mental health conditions was about the same as the previous year, possibly due to a lack of personal protective equipment in certain settings that limited in-person visits.
- There was an almost 8 per cent increase in major mental health visits and an almost 12 per cent increase in other mental health visits from August to December 2020 as more physicians and patients began using and receiving virtual care.
- There was a drop of nearly 13 per cent recorded for visits to physicians for substance abuse issues during the pandemic (March to December 2020), compared with the same part of 2019; this patient population is challenging to reach, probably does not respond well to virtual care and may have experienced high levels of disruption in housing and job security during the pandemic.
These statistics reflect only those mental health and addictions services provided by physicians and billed to OHIP. These services are also provided in Ontario by other health-care professionals and through employee assistance programs or private billings.
The OMA is studying these statistics to better understand what they mean and how doctors can address existing and post-pandemic mental health needs. It’s possible that the number of visits for mental health and addictions services may be even higher than initial figures suggest.
“Ontario’s doctors will continue to work with the government to provide the mental health and addiction supports needed for both patients and health-care workers,” said OMA CEO Allan O’Dette. “The stronger our overall health-care system is, the better able we are to look after all aspects of our own and our community’s well-being.”