The number of Canadians having suicidal thoughts has quadrupled during the pandemic, according to a new survey, raising concerns about the toll the outbreak is having on mental health.
The research by the Canadian Mental Health Association and the University of British Columbia, released Thursday, is the second of what is expected to be a series of check-ins on the emotional state of Canadians.
“We’re very worried that the emotional and mental-health impact is going to be deep and long-lasting,” CMHA chief executive Margaret Eaton said.
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Researchers found that 40 per cent of those surveyed said that their mental health had deteriorated since the COVID-19 outbreak began, a figure that rose to 61 per cent among those with a pre-existing mental-health issue. People were more worried about the virus, more depressed and 20 per cent had increased their alcohol use as a way to cope. Among parents with minor children at home, 28 per cent were drinking more.
However, the findings were not all bleak. When asked about the emotional impact of the pandemic, while the most common responses were worry, stress and sadness, many respondents voiced feelings of hope, empathy and contentment.
Ms. Eaton said she was most alarmed by the jump in suicidal thinking. Using 2016 data as the baseline, about 2.5 per cent of Canadians acknowledged such thoughts before the pandemic. In the first survey, conducted in May, that had risen to 6 per cent. By September, it was 10 per cent.
“We’ve had bubbles of 10 people,” she said. “That’s one out of 10 of those people in your bubble who might have had a thought or feeling of suicide.”
The numbers were worse still within at-risk groups. Among LGBTQ2+ people, the rate of suicidal thinking doubled between May and September, from 14 per cent to 28 per cent. It rose from 15 per cent to 24 per cent among those with a disability, and from 16 per cent to 20 per cent among Indigenous people.
Suicidal thinking was also up, though less dramatically, among parents with minor children living at home. In the September survey, 13 per cent of this group acknowledged thoughts of suicide, up from 9 per cent in May.
The surveys included about 3,000 people drawn from an online “restricted access panel” managed by polling vendor Maru/Matchbox. The equivalent margin of error would be 1.79 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
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At Markham Stouffville Hospital, northeast of Toronto, psychiatrist Mark Berber says he was shocked at the number of patients with suicidal thoughts he encountered during a recent shift in the emergency department. A critic of pandemic restrictions that he thinks are worsening Canadians’ mental health, he worries the toll will get worse through the winter.
“As time goes on and people lose their jobs, lose their businesses, lose their livelihoods, that’s going to affect their home life, their family life and their hopefulness,” Dr. Berber said. “Disillusionment and hopelessness are the forebears of depression and suicide.”
It can take years for Canada to collect and release suicide statistics, making it impossible to know whether the pandemic is associated already with an increase in fatal self-harm. Juveria Zaheer, a psychiatrist and suicide researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said this was a key question, but that the answer is likely to be complicated.
She noted the many factors that can influence a suicide trend, and warned of the harm that could be created by telling the public that a rise is to be expected.
“If we’re telling a story that there’s an inevitability to an increased rate of suicide, that could send the message that there isn’t hope or that there aren’t services available,” Dr. Zaheer said.
The work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, whose 19th-century study of suicide was the first major analysis of the phenomenon, suggests that the pandemic could be having contradictory effects on rates. Alienation and financial stress, which this year has brought for many, can lead to more self-harm. On the other hand, a war or major event that brings people together with common purpose, as may have occurred during the pandemic, can be associated with a reduction in suicide.
Ms. Eaton, at the CMHA, was concerned that the coming months could be particularly hard for Canadians.
“We are worried about winter, and the fact that people won’t be able to have holiday time with each other, that we’re going to be in our lockdowns and even further isolated,” she said.
“We’re social animals. We need to be with other people. And so, [find] those virtual ways to connect or the ways to connect outside, even though I know it’s cold and dark. Get appropriate outdoor wear and get outside with someone. Be with other people as well as you are able to under the circumstances, because that’s going to be key for all of us for dealing with our mental health.”
Note: Stories of suicide can be difficult to read. If you’re dealing with mental-health concerns, help is available at 1-833-456-4566. If you’re in crisis, call 911 or go to your nearest hospital.
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