Combating negative mental health during the pandemic
Adjunct professor collaborates on project exploring pandemic mental health impacts

Ben Collins, adjunct professor in the department of anthropology, is engaged in a collaborative study targeting the effects of the pandemic on mental health. The study is aimed at filling knowledge gaps in the prevention and management of negative mental health outcomes among people predisposed to severe COVID-19 outcomes.

Collins is working with Dr. Karen Davison — a researcher at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Canada Research Chair — who is leading the initiative.

“It’s a big collaborative project, and it was part of one of the rapid funding [Canadian Institutes of Health Research] grants,” Collins said.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Patty Hajdu, Canada’s minister of health, announced an additional $25.8 million in federal funding for COVID-19 research. This investment was a small portion of the $275 million in funding for COVID-19 research announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last March. The project was funded through the Canadian 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) rapid research funding opportunity.

The research is especially pertinent to students who have struggled to cope with their mental health during the pandemic. Students, as a demographic, have struggled intensely with mental health challenges during the ongoing pandemic.

“There’s a big focus on COVID-19, on the virus and infection [and] everything else — and there should be,” Collins said.

“But, you know, the correlates of that, in terms of people’s mental health kind of being challenged in a global pandemic for what has been 18 months […] I think the majority of people are facing probably more challenges with their mental health during the pandemic than they were previously. And this is something that also needs to be brought into the conversation.”

Collins was tapped to collaborate on the project because of his experience with the type of qualitative analysis used by the study.

“This current project [is] based on some of my kind of experience with the realist evaluation [or] realist review, which is a qualitative analysis method,” Collins said.

The study is a scoping literature review — or a preliminary assessment of potential size and scope of available research literature — in English and Chinese regarding health issues, mental health therapies and support during the coronavirus pandemic.

The literature review considered published data from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreaks as well as the emerging research on mental health and COVID-19. COVID-19 has caused a higher risk of substance abuse, depression and feelings of isolation.

The findings of the study will serve as the foundation for future research into evaluating effective tactics across various populations. Two further publications resulting from the study are currently being reviewed. Collins and the other researchers are working on a third that will be ready to submit in early October.

The study’s ultimate goal is to determine interventions or techniques to be used to promote mental health throughout the pandemic, as well as to identify knowledge gaps in the prevention and management of mental health responses.

“Starting a conversation about mental health, mental health promotion, different approaches to mental health during the pandemic and things that we can think about with regards to mental health promotion after the pandemic,” Collins explained.

The research team found taking a holistic approach to health care is the best practice.

“What we found looking at the literature was talking about mental health promotion and especially integrated health services,” Collins said.

“So, that’s the integration of mental, physical and social health care. When you have integrated health services, it generally improves access to the services and enhances the sustainability and stability of these services.”

Collins also recognizes that researchers should address the “infodemic”— both the lack of clear information and preponderance of misinformation about the pandemic.

Collins highlighted the need for greater scientific understanding and literacy to combat the emerging protest movements that have emerged in Winnipeg.

“These are some of the things that were present at the start of the pandemic and are still present,” Collins said, referencing recent anti-vaccine and anti-mask protests.

Another way to address community health concerns during the pandemic, the study found, is to address equality to access to health services.

People who do not have access to broadband internet or who do not have simple digital literacy skills are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and thus have limited access to health-care providers.

“Not everyone has the same access to those [mobile health] services,” Collins said.

“There are disparities in digital access.”

Students struggling with their mental health are encouraged to reach out to the Student Counselling Centre by calling the reception desk at 204-474-8592.