Survey says: BC mental health is improving
But overall scores fall short of pre-pandemic levels due to more adverse impacts on people under 55 years of age
As restrictions continue to ease across Canada and worldwide, British Columbians are feeling more hopeful than ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A BC-wide survey done for Pacific Blue Cross by Leger in February 2022 shows that 70% of us are reporting a positive rating of their mental health, which is 13 percentage points more than last year at the height of the pandemic.
And the outlook is promising: 31% of survey respondents expect improvements in their mental wellbeing over the next few months. These are the most positive self-evaluated mental health levels we’ve seen since March of 2020.
According to Maria Watson, Counselling Manager at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), this is a normal response to an abnormal situation. Feelings of sadness and stress during an event as significant and prolonged as global pandemic are to be expected, as is a lifting of these feelings now that life is getting back to a semblance of normal.
However, the recoveries have not been universal. The survey results indicate that people under the age of 55 scored their mental health significantly lower than those who are over 55, which stands to reason—there is evidence showing that the pandemic impacted younger people more than older people.
Age and the use of mental health supports
Our survey data shows a marked difference between age groups when respondents were asked whether they considered using mental health services and tools in the previous six months. Of those aged 18-34, 58% used or considered using them. That number reduced to 45% for those aged 35-54, and fell sharply to 21% for those 55+.
- mental health prescription drugs made up 15.9% of the total benefits utilization,
- 24% of members age 55+ made claims for mental health prescription drugs while just 13% of those under 55 did so,
- the overall utilization for mental health paramedical (i.e. counselling) services was 4.8%, and
- 92% of claimants for mental health paramedical services were under the age of 55.
In effect, those age 55+ were more apt to use prescription medications to address stress, anxiety, and sleep issues, and those under 55 tended to use more counselling services.
“We need to understand why we are seeing this trend and research further,” says Anar Dossa, Director of Pharmacy Services for Pacific Blue Cross. “For instance, is there more awareness and acceptance of non-drug measures among younger population? Is there more awareness of the adverse effects of medications amongst the younger members and therefore less of a willingness to try drugs for mental health? Are there access issues for non-drug measures amongst the older population? We would support providing more education to members about their benefit plans and coverage and how they can be optimized to improve mental health.”
We need to break down barriers to care
Among the nearly 6 in 10 British Columbians who told Leger they recently tried to access mental health services of some form, more than two thirds said they had experienced one or more barriers. We’ve asked this question in previous surveys and affordability is the most prevalent barrier to care.
However, this time we wanted to know if barriers were still a concern for those who had employer-based or personal health benefit plans. We were surprised when we saw that over half of those individuals with employer-based plans—and 72% of individuals with personal health plans—weren’t totally sure if their plans provide benefits for maintaining, enhancing or treating mental health.
“It is important that employers and HR specialists continue to provide employees with adequate education on benefits plans and communicate with clarity and on a regular basis,” said Brooke Moss, Associate Vice President, Work & Wellness for Pacific Blue Cross. Understanding the options available to our members is a critical first step in accessing treatment for those who are considering it.
There’s help out there
But what do people do if they don’t have benefit plans that can help them with their mental health? “There are many accessible, low-cost counselling options in communities across the province,” says Julia Kaisla, Executive Director, CMHA North and West Vancouver Branch. “The provincial government has invested significantly in recent years to build and sustain these resources, which allows organizations like ours to provide innovative programs that meet people where they are.”
“A great example is our walking therapy program,” adds Watson. “Evidence shows that walking can improve sleep, mood, and energy levels, and walking and being outdoors contributes to better mental health overall. We’re all overwhelmed coming out of the pandemic; walking is a small thing we can do that can make a huge difference, especially if we do it with friends or family.”
That’s why Pacific Blue Cross has sponsored events like the Vancouver Sun Run’s 10K Walk with Pacific Blue Cross, in which almost 3,000 people participated in the virtual event, completing the distance in their communities between April 15-24th. As we approach Mental Health Week on May 2nd, we want to encourage members and non-members alike to do simple things—like walking—as a way of practicing a little self-care.