Three people put heads together to hug
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People living in rural Ontario have experienced significant declines in mental health, employment satisfaction and personal safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a University of Guelph study.

Dr. Leith Deacon, professor in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, conducted a large quantitative survey with United Way Perth-Huron and Salvation Army, Listowel. They aimed to provide data to policy makers on how rural populations in Canada are underrepresented in COVID-19 emergency management policies.

“Lacking adequate representation in provincial and federal pandemic countermeasures can have potentially detrimental effects to rural communities and our objective is to give them a voice in policy decisions,” said Deacon. “We need to ensure that all Canadians are represented, not just those living in the big cities.”

Initial findings show a continuous decline in mental health among survey participants since the start of the pandemic, as well as lower employment satisfaction and personal safety.

Approximately 3,600 surveys, consisting of 120 questions, have been completed so far. The surveys were distributed via social media links and paper mail-out, with most participants residing in Ontario’s Perth and Huron counties. The research team worked to cover as many demographics as possible, including age, gender, income level, employment sector and ethnicity.

Dr. Leith Deacon

The data revealed trends that might otherwise have been missed, such as how people with lower incomes suffered greater mental health effects.

Using data from the study, Deacon has helped to secure funding for more ambulatory care in both counties.

So far, Deacon has given more than 20 presentations on the initial findings from the project.

Co-authors Dr. Wayne Caldwell, Dr. Silvia Sarapura, and Dr. Sara Epp all in U of G’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development helped secure funding provided from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs through the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance that will allow the project to expand in September 2021 to at least six additional rural counties in Ontario.

“We’re constantly pushing for our data to be presented to groups that can advocate or make actual change,” said Deacon. “I grew up in Northern Ontario and I know the importance of being heard, and we’re confident we can make that happen for many rural communities.”

This research is supported by the University of Guelph COVID-19 Research Development and Catalyst Fund. Funding from Mitacs also helped make this project possible.


Dr. Leith Deacon