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The number of people seeking to end their lives in Canada’s most heavily used transit system rose sharply in the eight months since Ontario declared a provincial emergency over COVID-19 in March.

There were 35 suicide attempts or fatalities in the Toronto Transit Commission during that time. Comparing these eight months with the same period in years past, 2020′s total was nearly one-third more than the average of the three previous years. It was the highest recorded during this stretch over the 16 years for which detailed data are available.

These are some of the first hard data to emerge about self-harm in Canada during the pandemic. And they come against a backdrop of rising concern among mental health professionals and organizations.

On Thursday, the Canadian Mental Health Association released results of a survey showing 10 per cent of respondents reported having suicidal thoughts, quadruple the rate before the pandemic. A September survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found increased incidence of mental health problems, anxiety and unhealthy drinking.

“The pandemic is a shared trauma and trauma is a risk factor for suicide,” said CAMH psychiatrist and suicide researcher Juveria Zaheer, though she warned against suggesting a narrative of inevitability and emphasized that help is available.

“The vast majority of people experiencing suicidal thinking don’t die by suicide.”

Mara Grunau, CEO of the Calgary-based Centre for Suicide Prevention, was surprised by the rise in TTC figures. She noted that suicide trends normally take time to develop, because people tend to exhaust all their resources before reaching such a decision. But she added that people who were already in a difficult situation as the pandemic began may be more vulnerable.

The lag time it takes to formally declare a death a suicide makes it impossible to determine whether there has been an overall increase this year in the number of Canadians seeking to end their lives. In Toronto, though, the transit data offer a window into local trends.

While the frequency of suicide incidents on the TTC varies from week to week, data analysis over a longer period can reveal patterns. The picture emerging from this eight-month stretch of 2020 is particularly bad.

Suicide incidents were 31-per-cent higher than the average during the same period from 2017 through 2019. The most recent available figures show that absenteeism among TTC employees as a result of these incidents was already higher by the end of October than the annual average over the three previous years.

Broader data comparisons are complicated by a 2016 change in how the TTC records suicide attempts. That year, the agency revealed last week, it began to also count those apprehended for going to track level with suicidal intent, even if they weren’t hit or nearly hit by a train. Another wrinkle is that the TTC does not have access to subsequent medical data of people who are hit, so the agency does not know how many of those who lived long enough to leave the station survived what are usually catastrophic injuries.

Removing data for attempts and looking only at incidents known to have resulted in deaths, these eight months in 2020 were much worse than long-term trends. The agency had 16 fatalities, which was 60 per cent more than the average over the previous three years and roughly double the averages over the previous five and 10 years.

In the three months immediately before the eight-month period in question, the number of completed and attempted suicides did not fluctuate beyond historical norms.

suicide incidents up in ttc

While suicide attempts and fatalities involving the

TTC fluctuate weekly, examining longer periods

can reveal patterns. In this case, The Globe

analyzed the eight-month period beginning

March 17, when the Ontario government

declared an emergency to tackle the pandemic.

TTC suicide incidents (fatalities and attempts)

Eight-month period

from March 17

to Nov. 16, 2020

35

Average over same

period, previous

three years

26.7

TTC suicide fatalities

Eight-month period

from March 17

to Nov. 16, 2020

16

Average over same

period, previous

three years

10

Average over same

period, previous

five years

8.4

Average over same

period, previous

10 years

8.1

oliver moore and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE

AND MAIL, SOURCE: globe analysis of ttc data

suicide incidents up in ttc

While suicide attempts and fatalities involving the TTC

fluctuate weekly, examining longer periods can reveal

patterns. In this case, The Globe analyzed the eight-month

period beginning March 17, when the Ontario government

declared an emergency to tackle the pandemic.

TTC suicide incidents (fatalities and attempts)

Eight-month period

from March 17

to Nov. 16, 2020

35

Average over same

period, previous

three years

26.7

TTC suicide fatalities

Eight-month period

from March 17

to Nov. 16, 2020

16

Average over same

period, previous

three years

10

Average over same

period, previous

five years

8.4

Average over same

period, previous

10 years

8.1

oliver moore and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: globe analysis of ttc data

suicide incidents up in ttc

While suicide attempts and fatalities involving the TTC fluctuate weekly, examining longer

periods can reveal patterns. In this case, The Globe analyzed the eight-month period beginning

March 17, when the Ontario government declared an emergency to tackle the pandemic.

TTC suicide incidents (fatalities and attempts)

Eight-month period

from March 17

to Nov. 16, 2020

35

Average over same

period, previous

three years

26.7

TTC suicide fatalities

Eight-month period

from March 17

to Nov. 16, 2020

16

Average over same

period, previous

three years

10

Average over same

period, previous

five years

8.4

Average over same

period, previous

10 years

8.1

oliver moore and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: globe analysis of ttc data

A TTC spokeswoman said the agency is working to identify people in the system who need help.

“Since April, we have been partnering with [the municipal homeless initiative] Streets To Homes to do pro-active outreach to help those in need of assistance and support, or those who are experiencing mental health or addiction issues, and find the services best suited to them,” Hayley Waldman wrote in an e-mail. “The teams have had hundreds of interactions to date.”

Only rarely in Canada is there an investigation into why a person took their life, or why they chose a particular method, making it impossible to know if the rise on the TTC is associated with the arrival of COVID-19 or a persistent statistical aberration.

“While we’re all very interested to know what’s happening [to the suicide rate] with the pandemic, I think it’s early,” said David Gratzer, a psychiatrist at CAMH. “I think one should be hesitant in looking at early numbers, because they do tend to be small.”

There has not been a parallel rise in suicide at Metrolinx, the other main Toronto-area transit agency, which operates a different type of railway across a wider geographic region. But that agency was shaken last month by an unusual cluster of incidents – three fatal and one not – over a few days on their train network.

“Those who work for public transit agencies are sadly all too familiar with the devastating aftermath of suicide,” chief safety officer Martin Gallagher and chief operating officer Ian Smith wrote in a subsequent note to staff.

“There is no simple answer to preventing suicide, however, there are ways we can all make a difference in the lives of those who might be struggling.”

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, go to your nearest hospital or call 9-1-1.

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