City mental health line saw spike in calls from men during pandemic’s first wave – Toronto Star

A mental health phone line serving the Greater Toronto Area — 211 Central — saw a 70 per cent spike in daily calls for help from men after the onset of the pandemic, according to a new report from the Wellesley Institute.

When the crisis was declared and the province locked-down, hundreds of thousands of Ontarians lost their jobs or saw their work hours reduced, creating financial struggles in the home. Those particular stressors may have led to more men than usual coming forward with mental health issues, explained Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute and professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

“Those various stressors early on, were things that might stress men,” McKenzie said. “Later on, as the pandemic rolled out, it was women who were much more likely to have mental health issues than men.”

Kwame Mckenzie

The City of Toronto announced a partnership with 211 Central in April 2020, to support residents managing stress, anxiety and financial loss induced by the pandemic. By dialing 211, people across the Greater Toronto Area can access one of seven primary mental health service providers for direct phone support.

Researchers at the Wellesley Institute analyzed calls to the mental health line between Jan. 1 to July 31, 2020. Of the 3,924 calls made by people looking for mental health supports during the time frame, 69 per cent — or 2,709 — came after the state of emergency declaration on March 17.

The report investigates call trends before and after the onset of COVID-19 by mental health service needs, age group and gender identity.

Researchers found women and working people were among the groups most impacted during the first wave. The majority of callers were female-identifying adults, both before the state of emergency (758, or 62 per cent) and afterwards (1,641 or 60 per cent). Daily calls from women increased by 54 per cent after the pandemic began.

“Women had to work at home, they had to look after their kids, and they had to think about other people, such as their parents who needed help,” McKenzie said, noting a rise in domestic violence as well.

Women are much more likely to seek help through phone lines than men, said McKenzie. In the report’s limitations section, the researchers note readers should “use caution when interpreting the result that gender gaps widened during the pandemic.”

Between Jan. 1 and March 17, the phone line received 412 calls from male-identifying people. After March 17, 869 men sought support through 211 Central, with daily calls jumping by 70 per cent.


Vinusha Gunaseela, co-author of the report, senior statistical data analyst for York region and former researcher at the Wellesley Institute, said while fewer men called the phone line compared to women, that should not be interpreted as indicating a lack of mental health distress on the part of men, or that they are somehow more resilient to crisis.

“We didn’t want it to take away from the fact that all genders should be taken into consideration when expanding mental health supports for Toronto,” Gunaseela said.

Gunaseela said one of the most striking findings from the report is that the majority of calls (1,605 after March 17) came from people needing mental health assessment and treatment. They were less likely to be for mutual support programs (95) or mental health care facilities (124).

The researchers “don’t really know much” about the populations reaching out to 211 Central, because they didn’t have access to race or income data, or information on which neighbourhoods callers reside in, she added.

In crisis situations, policy-makers and key stakeholders should be considering how to help people be “their own psychologist or doctors,” said McKenzie. At the start of the pandemic, people should have been taught the benefits of practising mindfulness, learning new things and thinking about themselves, he added.

“If people can look after themselves, then we’re resilient,” McKenzie said. “People just didn’t think about mental health when they were thinking about response to COVID-19.”

Right now, as the province reopens, the city needs to be focusing much more on mental health in COVID recovery and how to support people’s mental wellness, McKenzie said.

“We shouldn’t be in this position again … we have been through a significant trauma. Those things catch up with us,” he said.

A spokesperson for the city of Toronto said it “will continue to provide supports for mental health” and ensure robust intergovernmental investments into mental health, substance use services, and other supportive services as required.