Rates of depression and stress have increased among the general population since the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, we know little about the current state of mental health of older adults (65+), who are at a higher risk for illness and death due to infection, and account for more than 95% of COVID-19 deaths in Ontario. They are also vulnerable to the effects of social isolation, such as depression and worsening of medical conditions, that may result from physical distancing - one of the main defenses we have in the fight against COVID-19.
A new, joint study by Baycrest and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) aims to deepen our understanding of this problem and identify ways to support older adults during this time. Led by Dr. Linda Mah, clinician scientist at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute (RRI), the study will examine the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and physical distancing on the mental health of older adults. In addition, it will look at resilience and coping among this group, both of which are known to support mental health. The study involves Sunnybrook, University Health Network and St. Michael's Hospital in addition to Baycrest and CAMH.
Co-leading the investigation is Dr. Benoit Mulsant, clinician scientist in the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at CAMH and Labatt Family Chair of the Department of Psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto (U of T).
"Seniors' mental health is a highly relevant issue right now," says Dr. Mah, who is also a new Associate Professor of Psychiatry at U of T. "We know that during the SARS epidemic in 2003, there were increases in psychiatric problems among older adults in areas with large outbreaks of the virus. Today, one-third of people below 65 years of age are experiencing depression and high stress, even when they have not been infected or exposed to COVID-19. These numbers may be even higher in older adults, who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and to social isolation."
In this study, Drs. Mah and Mulsant and their colleagues will monitor changes in mental health and the incidence of psychiatric illness during the pandemic amongst 475 older adults in Toronto. The study is scheduled to be completed within the year, with some initial findings expected in the coming four to six months.
Mental health during COVID-19 should not be taken lightly. The results of this study will increase our knowledge of the impact of COVID-19 and of physical distancing as a public health measure on emotional well-being in older Canadians."
Dr. Benoit Mulsant, Clinician Scientist, Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at CAMH
"Our findings will inform public health officials' decisions on how best to implement restrictions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, while minimizing mental health risks in seniors," says Dr. Mah. "In addition, by examining factors that affect seniors' mental health during the pandemic, this study will provide information that can be used to develop interventions to support seniors during this and future pandemics."
Adds Dr. Mulsant, "Our study should have a direct and immediate impact on public health."