Financial strain top source of worry in COVID-19 mental health crisis: public health researcher

Candace Nykiforuk, associate professor at the School of Public Health, is leading new research on ways to address the toll financial strain related to COVID-19 is taking on Canadians' mental and physical health.

Financial strain is affecting Canadians’ mental and physical health and addressing it will be key to the country’s post-COVID social and economic recovery, according to public health professor Candace Nykiforuk.

Nykiforuk and her team received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study ways to address the health impacts of the pandemic related to financial strain. 

“Our project is evaluating policies and programs that help people achieve a standard of living that supports quality of life and keeps them out of the health-care system as long as possible,” said Nykiforuk, who is also associate dean of research and research programs in the School of Public Health and director of the Centre for Healthy Communities.

Nykiforuk said financial strain is defined as the stress people feel when they aren’t sure they will be able to meet their financial commitments, whether they are below the poverty line or not. Such strain changes with life events such as the birth of a child, loss of a job, purchase of a home or retirement. 

“There’s no line on a graph that says you're in strain or not in strain based on income,” Nykiforuk said. “It’s related to income, but it’s about more than that.”

Nykiforuk noted that even before the pandemic, nearly 30 per cent of Canadians were unable to pay all of their monthly bills. The pandemic has only made that worse, with financial worry ranked as the top pandemic-related source of anxiety for Canadians

Building on Alberta-based research

Financial strain is linked to mental and physical health issues such as work absenteeism, depression, anxiety, marital problems, smoking and chronic conditions, and children in families with financial strain are prone to loneliness and depression, Nykiforuk said. Single parents, women, people of colour, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and seniors are more likely to than others to experience financial strain.

“Financial strain is an equity issue,” Nykiforuk said. “The underlying social factors are preventable, which means they can be changed through policy and other interventions.“

Tools to address financial strain range from nationwide income support programs such as the Canada child benefit to local charitable initiatives such as e4c’s Make Tax Time Pay program. 

This COVID-19 financial strain project builds on work that was already underway through a partnership between U of A, the Alberta Cancer Prevention Legacy Fund and Alberta Health Services

Nykiforuk and her team will review academic and practice-based evidence, set up expert panels, and interview front-line social service and charitable workers to come up with a menu of actions that local, provincial or federal governments can take to tackle financial strain related to COVID-19, along with metrics to evaluate the impact of each measure or combination of measures. 

“This grant was ranked in the top 10 alongside vaccine development nationally because financial strain is a pervasive issue,” Nykiforuk said. “Financial strain at an individual level is financial strain at a society level, and we need to address it in order to recover or respond to the next crisis that comes around the corner, whether it’s an environmental disaster or another recession.”

“It is a fundamental determinant of not only the health of individuals, but also our ability to take on a thriving, prosperous economy.”


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