Owing to a significant increase in work-related stress brought about by the pandemic, and numerous concerns about workplace challenges, one-quarter of Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) who work with people with developmental disabilities reported experiencing moderate-to-severe distress, suggesting that more needs to be done to support these often invisible workers. These are among the findings of a province-wide mental health survey of 868 DSPs conducted in July 2020 by the Azrieli Adult Neurodevelopmental Centre at CAMH. Based on the survey results, the Centre is releasing a new report calling for additional support for DSPs, who often find themselves on the front lines of pandemic care but often do not have the same systematic supports as frontline health workers in medical settings.
Direct Support Professionals play a crucial role in the health of people with developmental disabilities, often supporting their integration into community living or assisting them in daily living activities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people with developmental disabilities — which accounts for approximately one per cent or 147,000 Ontarians — have become more vulnerable due to compounded physical and mental health factors that put them at greater risk of contracting the virus and experiencing health complications. This is further exacerbated by the higher likelihood of residing in congregate living settings.
“We know from demographic information that people who live in group homes, or in places where they’re unable to properly socially distance, have worse health outcomes during COVID-19. In general people with developmental disabilities are nearly four times more likely to die prematurely, so it’s easy to see how this can become a bigger issue during the pandemic,” says Dr. Yona Lunsky, Director of the Azrieli Centre and Senior Scientist at CAMH.
“We don’t often talk about developmental disabilities, and we don’t really talk about the staff who work with people with developmental disabilities. This is an invisible work force, but they are essential—and it’s important that we don’t forget about these people as health care workers. While this is not a health care sector, the physical and mental wellbeing of people with developmental disabilities is very much a health issue, especially during the pandemic.”
The survey findings paint a picture of workers who faced increasingly difficult workplace circumstances since the onset of the pandemic, including increased aggression and increased mental health concerns among their clients. DSPs also reported increasing levels of work stress, loss of employment due to tighter restrictions, inconsistent levels of infection control and increased anxiety over contracting and spreading the virus.
“With COVID 19 thrust upon us we have once again demonstrated the resilience, tenacity and expertise of this group of professionals,” says Michelle Brooks, Executive Director of The Participation House Project in Durham Region, and Chairperson of The Provincial Network on Developmental Services. “Through collaboration, due diligence and tireless effort we competently responded to and mitigated the risks associated with this global pandemic. However, I fear this ongoing over-extension and continued shortfall in investment by government will result in significant mental health challenges within our workforce and our broader community who relies upon us.”
“This is a highly resilient group, but let’s not assume that they can continue operating under significant stress as we move into this second wave, without giving them the support they need. Their mental health impacts the people they support, and the mental health of the people they support impacts them,” adds Dr. Lunsky. “At some point earlier this spring, they were recognized as essential workers, and that meant something to them. They will continue to be essential in the work that they do moving forward and we can’t forget this.
The report also proposed ways to better support these essential workers, offering a number of suggestions on how employers and policy makers could implement changes in policy and practice to boost mental health, increase recognition and improve safety among staff.
To read the report summarizing study results, click here.