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Social isolation: Leaning on technology for our mental well-being

The Bottom Line

  • In Canada, depression is the most prevalent mental illness amongst older adults. 
  • Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting or stopping in-person interactions with loved ones outside of our immediate household has become necessary, adding to feelings of social isolation and increasing the risk for depression.   
  • Telemedicine-based strategies, such as internet-based CBT, may have positive impacts on mental well-being by helping to reduce depressive symptoms in community-dwelling older adults.    
  • Check out the free mental health resources currently being made available by Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial governments. 

You’ve likely heard the statistic that one-in-five Canadians experience some form of mental illness or mental health problem every year (1). Mood disorders—like depression—are especially prevalent, with over 2.8 million Canadians experiencing a mood disorder in 2019 (2). Amongst older adults, depression is the most common mental illness (3;4).


As the world continues to battle COVID-19, we can’t speak about mental health and well-being without acknowledging the impacts that this virus, and the efforts made to manage it, have had on us. Fear and anxiety around getting sick or having loved ones contract the virus; grief over the loss of family, friends, or community members; frustration from disruptions to everyday life; and social isolation brought on by limited to no in-person interaction with loved ones outside of our immediate household are just a few of the ways our thoughts, feelings, and actions have been affected. In fact, last year, over one-third of Canadians aged 65 and older expressed that there had been a negative impact on their mental health since the initiation of vital physical distancing measures (5). Why might that be? Well, the social isolation that stems from having to be physically distant from family, friends, neighbours, and other important figures in our lives can increase the risk of depression. Additionally, access to mental health services that can help us cope with and treat the issue have also decreased (3;4;6;7).


However, technology may offer some help when it comes to keeping us connected with much needed health services. A rapid review has placed the spotlight on technology by investigating the effect of telemedicine as a treatment for older adults with depressive symptoms or disorders who live in the community (3).


What the research tells us

In the case of this review, telemedicine interventions generally referred to telephone-based strategies employed by counselors, social workers, nurses, or psychologists and internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that was sometimes self-guided and other times self-guided with additional feedback from a clinician. Although more comprehensive research is needed to further solidify the results, the review found that internet-based CBT may reduce depressive symptoms in community-dwelling older adults who experience depressive symptoms or depressive disorders, compared to usual care.


CBT stands out as a good candidate for improving mental well-being within a virtual setting due to its adaptability. Another check mark for CBT is that various health care providers are trained to administer it. In terms of telephone-based strategies, only two of six studies that looked at this strategy showed a positive result (3). However, in times of limited access to services, telephone support may still be a worthwhile option.


Taken all together, the use of telemedicine as a way to provide and access mental health resources during the COVID-19 pandemic seems like a valuable strategy to try. Generally, such services could come at a cost depending on factors such as the individual’s personal or provincial insurance plan, etc. However, there’s good news! Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial governments have already moved forward with this strategy, providing a variety of freely available online, telephone, and mobile application-based resources during this time. This removes barriers to access like cost, transportation, and mobility issues.


Mental health resources in Canada

  • Wellness Together Canada: This resource provides free mental health and substance use support to people in Canada and Canadians abroad. It’s private and confidential, available 24/7, and allows you to create an account to keep track of your wellness journey. Services include: text-message and telephone support, one-on-one counselling, self-guided apps and courses, and an online community of support and coaching. 
  • Government of Canada: On this page you’ll find access to generally free mental health resources across all provinces and territories. Services and resources may vary by location—they include: internet-CBT, CBT applications, telephone support, referrals to other resources, and more.
  • Connect with your general practitioner: Your GP or someone on their team may be trained to provide CBT or other mental health services. They may also make referrals to other mental health professionals, resources, or services. There could be costs associated with such referrals. 
  • In immediate crisis: Call 911.  

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References

  1. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Mental illness and addiction: Facts and statistics. [Internet] 2021. [cited March 2021]. Available from https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics 
  2. Statistics Canada. Mood disorders, by age group. [Internet] 2021. [cited March 2021]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1310009618 
  3. Goodarzi Z, Watt J, Kirkham J, et al. Depression in community residing elders (DIRE): A rapid review of depression telemedicine interventions for older adults living in the community. CIHR. 2020.
  4. MacCourt PWK, Tourigny-Rivard M-F. Guidelines for comprehensive mental health services for older adults in Canada: Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2011.
  5. Statistics Canada. Canadians' mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. [Internet] 2020. [cited March 2021]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200527/dq200527b-eng.htm 
  6. Armitage R, Nellums LB. COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly. Lancet Public Health. 2020.
  7. Steinman MA, Perry L, Perissinotto CM. Meeting the care needs of older adults isolated at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA. Intern Med. 2020.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of these blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with current social distancing recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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