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Ontarians unclear on how to access social support during pandemic, survey finds

Ontarians in need of social support during the COVID-19 pandemic may not know where to seek help for themselves or their neighbours, according to a new study.

Forty-two per cent of 1,000 Ontarians surveyed at the beginning of last month said they needed additional help from social service providers during the pandemic.

Adult mental health concerns and financial stress were the most commonly cited needs, according to findings released today by the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies.

The organization commissioned the study from the Angus Reid Group to get a clearer picture of the pandemic's impact on Ontario families.

The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population

Association spokesman Sean McGrady said it was not a surprise that Ontarians need additional support during the pandemic, but he noted "concerning" percentages of people who were unaware of how to access services.

"Families do best when they have a strong support network and easy, equitable access to social services in their local community, but it really is vital that they know how to access those," McGrady said in a telephone interview.

More than half of the respondents to the survey said if their families needed extra help, they would not know where to seek it out. Sixty per cent said they would not know how to help a family in their community access services.

"It's very concerning," McGrady said. "It certainly makes the work of awareness-raising all the more important this year."

Two-thirds of those respondents currently in need of support at home were unsure of how to access services. Those in need were twice as likely to know at least one other family in need of support.

Younger adults, women, lower-income people and those with children in their household were more likely to report at least one social need.  

Participants were asked about a series of common issues seen among families seeking help from children's aid societies, such as underemployment, intimate partner violence and addictions.

"Families are facing greater challenges than ever and certainly we wanted to understand that a bit better," McGrady said.

He said a follow-up survey may be done next year to assess any progress on awareness of supports available in communities.

Sylvia Lyons said even with supportive children's aid workers, it's been challenging to access mental health supports for her son, with long wait times for appointments in the years he's been involved with children's aid.

Her 14-year-old suffers from anxiety and a depressive disorder that make it difficult for him to attend school, Lyons said — concerns that have become more widespread as kids deal with the stresses of the pandemic.

"What he normally goes through is now everybody else's normal," she said.

The transition to online learning and remote services have been a good fit for Lyons' son, who has difficulty leaving the house. He now feels more able to participate, with less anxiety, from home.

Lyons' own battle as a parent trying to access social services is now better understood by her peers, she said.

Other parents have reached out to her for advice about supporting their kids who are experiencing anxiety and fear about attending school this year, and asked where she first went to seek help.

While there are still barriers to accessing social support, Lyons said it's encouraging to see more families discuss their experiences openly.

"I think the only way we can make it better is by more people talking about it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2020.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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