Ontario adults reporting increases in mental health problems

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital and a world leading research centre in the field. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental illness and addiction.

Mental health problems among adults in Ontario may be on the rise, according to the latest CAMH Monitor survey, the longest ongoing study of adult mental health and substance use in the province.

Significant findings of the survey show that between 2016 and 2017: self-rated reports of fair or poor mental health increased significantly from 7.1 to 10.1 per cent and the proportion reporting frequent mental distress in the past month increased from 7.4 to 11.7 per cent. This increase was particularly prominent among women.

Thoughts about suicide almost doubled, from 2.3 to 4.1 per cent, representing an estimated 426,900 adults. The findings are consistent with what has been reported from the CAMH emergency department in recent years, where visits have increased by 70 per cent between 2012 and 2017.

“These findings are concerning,” says Dr. Hayley Hamilton, CAMH Institute for Mental Health Policy Research senior scientist and CAMH Monitor co-principal investigator. “It is notable to see such a broad-based increase in reports of poor mental health. This points to the need to continue efforts to improve resilience among adults and reduce the burden of mental illness on individuals and families.”

“The reasons for suicidal ideation can be complex and unique to each individual, so it is difficult to pinpoint specific causes for this increase,” says Dr. Juveria Zaheer, Institute for Mental Health Policy Research clinician scientist and the lead author of a recently published clinical guidebook for suicide prevention in the military. “It is important to remember people thinking about suicide are experiencing significant distress and deserve support and treatment. The vast majority of people who experience suicidal thoughts do not die by suicide and there is hope for recovery.”

The number of drivers reporting texting while driving at least once in the past year has decreased significantly from 36.8 per cent, in 2015, to 27.6 per cent, in 2017. Since the 2015 survey, several public policy measures were introduced in Ontario to reduce distracted driving, including much higher fines and demerit point losses, increased police enforcement on the roads and widespread public awareness campaigns on the dangers of distracted driving.

“These numbers suggest that targeted public policy measures may have an impact on reducing dangerous and potentially deadly behaviours on the road,” says Dr. Robert Mann, CAMH Institute for Mental Health Policy Research senior scientist and CAMH Monitor co-principal investigator.

Reports of driving after cannabis use have increased significantly in the past five years, from 1.3 per cent, in 2012, to 2.6 per cent, in 2017. That was particularly pronounced among male drivers, who reported an increase from 1.9 to 3.9 per cent.

“While these numbers remain relatively low, the 2017 percentage represents almost 250,000 people who report driving less than an hour after consuming cannabis.” said Mann. “Now that cannabis use is legal for adults, it’s important to continue to monitor this behaviour.”

In the year leading up to legalization, cannabis use increased significantly from 15.7 per cent, in 2016, to 19.4 per cent, in 2017. The increase was prominent among women and people over the age of 50. It’s a continuation of a long-term trend towards increased cannabis use, which has more than doubled in the last 20 years. The highest increase during that time has been among 18 to 29 year olds, where it has gone up from 18.3 per cent, in 1996, to the current rate of 39.1 per cent. Also during that time, the proportion of users who are 50 years and older has increased from two to 29 per cent.

“Now that cannabis is legal, it is more important than ever to have sustained public awareness campaigns about the potential dangers from increased cannabis use, especially for people under 25 whose brains are still developing,” says Mann. “These numbers indicate the need for more research and education regarding cannabis use and potential harms.”

Moderate to severe problematic use of electronic devices continues to be a concern, especially for people aged 18 to 29, who showed, by far, the highest level of problematic use at 21.5 per cent. Problematic use was defined as answering ‘yes’ to at least three of six questions in regard to electronic devices, including whether you have ever tried to cut back on your use, if a family member ever expressed concern, or if you ever missed school, work or important social activities because of your screen habits.

“There is growing evidence that heavy use of electronic devices is linked with mental health concerns,” said Hamilton. “Strategies like taking breaks from our phones at certain times maybe worth considering for people who are worried about whether their use is a problem or becoming a problem.”

A consistent theme in the Monitor over the years and one that is evident in this report, is the prominence of substance use and mental health problems among young people between 18 and 29. This age group is more likely than other age groups to report problematic use of alcohol, cannabis use and e-cigarette use, and to have significantly higher reports of suicidal ideation, frequent mental distress days and psychological distress.

“These multiple indicators of problematic and high-risk behaviours occur at a time when these young people are charting their lives, finding careers and starting families,” says Dr. Sanjeev Sockalingam, CAMH psychiatrist and education vice-president. “These data point to the high levels of stress during this stage in life and the importance of recognizing these risks and responding to them in a timely manner.”

The results from the 2017 CAMH Monitor are based on telephone interviews with 2,812 adults 18 and older across the province.


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