Canadian military veterans and their spouses are invited to participate in a study to learn how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected their mental health.
The nationwide study will be conducted in a series of online surveys over 18 months.
Lawson Health Research Institute, located at Western University in London, Ontario, is working with the Ottawa-based Centre of Excellence on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to conduct the study. The team hopes results can be used by health care workers and policymakers to support veterans and their families during the current pandemic and in future public health emergencies.
“There’s been some research that was published looking at mental health of Canadians in general,” said Dr. Don Richardson, Lawson Associate Scientist and Director of the MacDonald Franklin Operational Stress Injury (OSI) Research Centre.
Richardson says a subjective survey, in which Canadians were asked if they feel the pandemic has affected their mental health either positively or negatively, showed that about half of respondents felt their mental health had deteriorated.
Studies of health care workers have shown increased levels of stress and depression, and another study showed increased symptoms of
PTSD, especially among Canadian veterans.
And population studies show that Canadian veterans are at double the risk of mental illness when compared to the rest of the population, experiencing higher rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness. Their spouses are also at higher risk of distress, sometimes taking on significant caregiving responsibilities that affect their independence.
The new study is important because it reaches out to all veterans—not just those already experiencing OSIs, and not just recent veterans—as well as their spouses, Richardson said.
The team is looking for a sample of at least 1,000 veterans and 250 spouses.
Richardson is a practicing psychiatrist as well as a research scientist. He said observations from virtual healthcare delivery are part of what prompted the study.
“We became interested in this study simply because a lot of the veterans were going to what we called virtual care—telemedicine, using telephone or video—while in the past we would have seen people in-person,” he said.
Many veterans appreciate being able to connect to mental health services virtually. It also gives care providers new insights into a patient’s mental health environment.
“One of the innovations with virtual care is that it gave clinicians a way of being in their home,” Richardson said. “We had more access to their spouses, so we would also hear of the impact the pandemic has had on the spouses. Because they’re another group of individuals whose voices are not readily heard.”
But while the virtual care model has had some benefits in treating mental health, the pandemic has necessitated more use of virtual care for physical conditions. Veterans have reported difficulty getting access to physiotherapy or massage therapy for painful chronic musculoskeletal issues, for example. Richardson says this may cause additional stress on spouse as caregiver, as well as on the patient.
In his clinical experience, Richardson says many veterans identify their spouse as their most important social support. “And we know through research that social support has been demonstrated as one of the most important predictors of developing PTSD and also one of the predictors of treatment response.”
Participants in the study will complete online surveys, available in both English and French, once every three months for a total of 18 months. They will be asked questions about their psychological, social, family-related and physical wellbeing, and any relevant changes to their lifestyle and health care treatment.
“We’re not only looking at illness, but also looking at resiliency factors. What is actually going well and what might not be going well, and then looking at it over time,” Richardson said. “The hope is that our research will be able to inform clinicians like myself, and also inform policy makers, to better prepare for future pandemics.”
“This pandemic is like a marathon, not necessarily like a sprint.”
Richardson said one of the goals is to make sure participants see the survey results.
“We want the information to go back to those to whom it’s more important, and [to learn] how we can best use that information to inform our clinical work,” he said.
Interested Canadian Veterans and spouses of Canadian Veterans can learn more about the study at www.veteransurvey.ca.