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Debt, financial fears impacting Canadians’ mental health, survey finds

Those with financial uncertainty rated significantly lower on Telus Health’s mental health index
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A February 2023 Telus Health survey indicates people with debt or financial uncertainty experience worse mental health than those with security. (Credit: Pixabay)

As Canadians increasingly struggle with the cost of living, a new survey confirms that financial stress has a very real impact on people’s mental well-being.

The February mental health index report from Telus Health surveyed 3,000 employed people and found those with uncertainty about how they’ll support themselves in the future and those who have experienced overwhelming debt had significantly lower well-being scores than those who felt financially secure.

Just 21 per cent of people indicated they think they’ll be financially comfortable in the future, while another 36 per cent said they’d be somewhat comfortable, 26 per cent said they were unsure, 21 per cent said they’d likely struggle at times and five per cent said they’d be in a very difficult situation.

Telus Health then rated the mental health of each response group, based on an index of 1-100, where 0-49 is distressed, 50-79 is strained and 80-100 is optimal.

None of the groups fell into the optimal category, but those who said they’d be financially comfortable in the future got the closest at 74.2. The scores dropped from there, with those fearing a difficult financial future landing last at 37.8 – the only one in the “distressed” category.

How people feel about their financial future has a large impact on their mental well-being, according to a Telus Health survey from February 2023. (Jane Skrypnek/Black Press Media)
How people feel about their financial future has a large impact on their mental well-being, according to a Telus Health survey from February 2023. (Jane Skrypnek/Black Press Media)

Similar results were found when Telus Health judged the mental health of people who reported feeling overwhelmed by debt at some point in their life, versus those who hadn’t.

Telus Health said those who had (45 per cent of respondents) had an average mental health score of 53.4, while those who hadn’t sat at 70.8.

A Telus Health survey from February 2023 shows people who have felt overwhelmed by debt at some point in their lives have a lower mental health index score than those who haven’t. (Jane Skrypnek/Black Press Media)
A Telus Health survey from February 2023 shows people who have felt overwhelmed by debt at some point in their lives have a lower mental health index score than those who haven’t. (Jane Skrypnek/Black Press Media)

This comes as no surprise to University of British Columbia psychology professor Jiaying Zhao. She studies the connection between scarcity – whether that’s of money, food or time – and mental well-being, and says there are very clear connections between poverty or financial stress and depression and anxiety.

“Poverty taxes the brain. It puts a huge mental burden on people.”

That burden eats up bandwidth and makes it more difficult for people to perform in school or at work, Zhao says. Short-term, it’s exhausting and stressful. Long-term, it can lead to mental illness.

Emily Jenkins, an associate professor at UBC’s School of Nursing, says a national polling study she helped lead in the early days of the pandemic showed similar results to the Telus Health survey. In her study, Jenkins says people reported financial worry as one of the primary contributors to their feelings of distress.

“I would imagine right now, being in a bit of an unprecedented economic state – or at least unprecedented in the last couple decades –, that it is putting a lot of added stress to people’s every day lives.”

Jenkins says research on this connection is important because it demonstrates the social nature of mental health. While some people may be biologically predisposed to mental illness, factors in their every day lives have a large impact as well.

Recognizing that something like financial security can significantly alter people’s well-being indicates that governments need to address mental health in more ways than one, Jenkins says.

The Telus Health report also judged overall mental health, beyond financial well-being. It gave respondents a 62.9 score, dropping about two points from 64.8 in January. When Telus Health first began the monthly reports in April 2020, the mental health index was 63.

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@janeskrypnek
jane.skrypnek@blackpress.ca

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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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