COVID-19 pandemic has created a new group of vulnerable Canadians: survey

Ottawa, ON – February 11, 2021: On National 211 Day, United Way Centraide Canada has released new data and survey results showing that many Canadians are struggling to pay bills and dealing with mental health issues for the first time in their lives as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontline staff with the 211 helpline are hearing first-hand from Canadians about these issues, which reinforces the value of 211’s navigation service.

Key results from a survey of Canadians and 211 data include the following: 

  • 19% of Canadians surveyed say they haven’t been able to pay one or more bill since the pandemic began.
    • Of those people, 73% said they didn’t have difficulty paying bills before the pandemic.
  • 12% of Canadians surveyed say they have experienced food insecurity at some point since the beginning of the pandemic.
    • Of those people, 63% say they haven’t experienced food insecurity in the past.
  • The pandemic is having a major effect on Canadians’ mental health:
    • 76% of Canadians say the pandemic has had an effect on their mental health.
    • 57% say it has caused them stress, 55% say it has caused them anxiety, 36% say it has caused depression.
    • There was a dramatic increase in the number of times Canadians reached out to 211 in January 2021 compared to August 2020 in search of counselling (276%), mental health care facilities (112%), and mental health assessment and treatment (105%). 
  • The number of calls to 211 from March to December 2020 was 30% higher than calls received during the same period in 2019.
  • Since March 2020, the top reasons people contacted 211 include:
    • Food access;
    • Financial aid;
    • Mental health and addictions services;
    • Housing; and
    • COVID-19 information.

211 is a free, confidential information and referral service that connects people to government, and community-based programs and social services in their vicinity. When a person dials 2-1-1, they are connected with a 211 Navigator who is trained to listen and understand the full picture of the caller’s unique situation and find supports and programs available to help. On average, one call to 211 can replace seven phone calls a person would make trying to locate the correct service to fit their needs.

“211 Navigators – the people who answer the calls – say since the pandemic began, they have received a high volume of callers who have never had to reach out for support before,” said Dan Clement, President and CEO of United Way Centraide Canada. “They are also experiencing a sharp increase in the number of callers in crisis. Finding the right support when you are experiencing a high level of stress and anxiety can be overwhelming, but United Way Centraide Canada and our 211 partners are working to ensure people can connect quickly to the right programs and services for their situation.”

As part of its COVID-19 response, the Government of Canada provided emergency funding to United Way Centraide Canada to increase 211 service capacity and expand its reach across the country. It is now available to everyone in Canada, 365 days a year.

February 11 is 211 Day, which is being marked across the country for the first time ever to raise awareness of the service. Tonight, 38 landmarks across the country, including BC Place, Calgary Tower, Niagara Falls, CN Tower, and Halifax, Charlottetown, and St. John’s city halls, will light up red to celebrate the day and remind Canadians of the availability of nationwide 211 service.

Chief Bryan Larkin, President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, says he and his members know first-hand the importance of ensuring more people know about 211 as a front door to support.

“Our frontline officers respond to calls for service from the community every day, not related to crime. The stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, an inability to feed or house yourself or your family, substance abuse, those are examples of real emergencies for people, and when they don’t know where to turn, they often go to the number they know best. But, we’re hoping increased access to 211, and a better understanding of the service will divert more of those calls to the helpline that can connect people to the support they need” says Larkin.

211 is accessible 7 days a week and available in over 150 languages by dialing 2-1-1.