(Pixabay.com)

(Pixabay.com)

Did the pandemic push up suicide rates in early 2020? International study says no

There’s no concrete reason as to why rates have not changed

By Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star

A study of suicide data from 21 countries and 25 regions, including parts of Canada, shows there were no signs of an increase in deaths by suicide in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The results may seem surprising, as they counter predictions that suicide rates would rise in Canada as a consequence of the pandemic. But the study’s authors caution the public and policy makers to remain vigilant.

The study, published recently in The Lancet and conducted by a team of more than 70 researchers globally, including from Sunnybrook Research Insititute in Toronto, used suicide data from 2019 up to July 2020 to determine whether there was an increase in the rate during the initial wave of COVID-19.

They found that rates did not increase beyond what’s predicted from pre-pandemic data. In some jurisdictions, including British Columbia and Alberta, the number of suicides has decreased.

Jane Pirkis, a professor of mental health at the University of Melbourne in Australia and one of the lead authors, said the analysis was conducted by modelling what the suicide trend would look like had the pandemic not taken place, and comparing that modelling to raw data from jurisdictions where 2020 suicide reports are readily available.

“We determined that there was no evidence in those countries that we looked at of any increase,” Pirkis said.

There’s no concrete reason as to why rates have not changed, despite some experts’ worries that the pandemic and its economic fallout would increase the number of suicides. But Pirkis hypothesized it may be social cohesion — the idea that national crises lead to a collective response from government and the community, which can in turn offer protection against suicide deaths.

Pirkis and other experts on suicide data also cautioned that the number of deaths often doesn’t tell the whole story, and the pandemic still poses a significant challenge for people’s mental health. Increase in demand for mental health services has been noted by several agencies in Canada, including walk-in clinics for youth, Kids Help Phone and the national suicide helpline.

“We still don’t know what will happen in the future, but we thought it was important to try to get some real data to try to answer that question because there was a lot of speculation,” Pirkis said.

While data from Canada is included in Pirkis’s analysis, the full picture of Canada’s suicide numbers from 2020 is not yet clear, said Mara Gruneau, the executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention based in Calgary.

Some provinces, including Ontario, have not reported their numbers yet. Numbers from provinces that reported are bound to increase slightly once they’re finalized by Statistics Canada, as is the trend historically. Those official nationwide numbers will not be available until 2022, Gruneau said.

The numbers that are available — which Gruneau said are provisional — suggest a significant decrease between 2019 and 2020, namely in Alberta and B.C. In Alberta, the number dropped from 601 deaths in 2019 to 468 in 2020. In B.C., deaths fell from 651 in 2019 to 408 in 2020.

Gruneau said that at first glance, these numbers look like a massive decrease in suicide trends, but one must zoom out to examine suicide numbers over many years to determine the trend.

Around 4,000 people die by suicide every year in Canada, and the suicide rate has plateaued in the last decade. As a result, Gruneau said further monitoring is needed over a number of years to determine whether suicide rates are heading in a downward trend.

“If you back up a few earlier years, you’ll see a bump up in 2015 in Alberta,” Gruneau said, referencing the year in which Alberta saw 666 deaths by suicide, the largest in the last decade. “Again, we didn’t know — is this a new trajectory or is this an anomaly? Thank God, it turned out to be an anomaly.”

Gruneau said a decrease in suicides does not mean a decrease in people struggling with suicidal ideation or significant mental health concerns. One thing the pandemic has done, she said, is enable many people to speak more openly about their mental health, and in turn find help.

“Suicide is not inevitable, and sometimes we look at an increase in crisis calls as a positive thing, because people are seeking help either for themselves or others,” Gruneau said.

Other hypotheses on why the rates have lowered or steadied include the decrease of regular stressors related to work and life that have come with lockdown measures, Pirkis said, as well as some people’s ability to spend more time with family as a result.

Pirkis said many jurisdictions put mental health and economic supports in place very early on in the pandemic as millions lost their income, including the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit or CERB, which helped 8.9 million Canadians receive compensation after losing their jobs due to COVID-19. Previous research shows a link between economic downturns and the rise in suicides, particularly after the 2008 recession.

“Some combination of those things may have helped reduce the risk (of suicide) at least in the early months of the pandemic,” Pirkis said.

But she recognized many people had different experiences. Many have lost livelihoods, others are grieving relatives. Some with pre-existing mental health conditions are particularly struggling, as evidenced by self-reported data and expert analysis throughout the pandemic.

In Canada, the pandemic has also led to a significant rise in overdose deaths, with Toronto reporting a record 38 opioid deaths in January.

“There are people for whom the pandemic has been an awful experience, and being locked down in their homes has been difficult for all sorts of reasons,” Pirkis said.

And, of course, the pandemic is far from over in most of the world, including Canada. It is why Pirkis and the study’s co-authors underline the need to remain vigilant, and keep helping people financially and with their mental health.

“It’s about thinking through the possible reasons for why the numbers have remained level, and making sure we keep those important supports in place.”

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at crisisservicescanada.ca or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566, or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kenny Podmore, here seen at Sidney’s cenotaph in November, says he feels for the veterans after organizers had to cancel an event acknowledging Victory in Europe (VE) Day for the second time in as many years because of COVID-19. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
North Saanich event marking 75th anniversary of VE-Day cancelled

Sidney resident first planned event for May 9, 2020 moved to May 8 before being cancelled

Individuals and businesses are encouraged to bring their unwanted electronics to Tillicum Centre May 14 to be shredded, recycled or donated. (Black Press Media file photo)
Greater Victoria residents can shred, donate electronics safely

Vancouver Island Better Business Bureau hosts event May 14 at Tillicum Centre

Penelope the cat showed up safe and sound at her owner’s porch after an unusual trip through the news cycle in recent weeks. (Photo courtesy of Reuniting Owners with Animals Missing)
Penelope, cat and friend of the Victoria HarbourCats, returns home safe

The cat had an after an unusual trip through the news cycle in recent weeks

Work is progressing on the new student housing building at the University of Victoria. The building will be home to 398 students when complete in September 2022. (Photo courtesy of UVic)
VIDEO: Mass timber installation begins at UVic student housing project

Green technology plays key role in building that will be home to 398 University of Victoria students

Stanley Fischer (right) died while in a Victoria police jail cell hours after he was arrested on Nov. 15, 1981. Forty years later, his family is questioning his cause of death. (Photo courtesy of Mark Fischer)
Family wants investigation into man’s 1981 death while in Victoria police custody

Stanley Fischer’s death was ruled a suicide after he was found hanging in his jail cell

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start releasing neighbourhood-specific COVID numbers after data leak

Documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun show cases broken down by neighbourhoods

Ladysmith RCMP safely escorted the black bear to the woods near Ladysmith Cemetary. (Town of Ladysmith/Facebook photo)
Black bear tranquillized, relocated after wandering around residential Ladysmith

A juvenile black bear was spotted near 2nd Avenue earlier Friday morning

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix update B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, April 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count creeps up, seven more deaths

445 people in hospital, 157 in intensive care

Summerland’s positive test rate is much higher than surrounding local health areas, according to internal BC CDC documents. (BC CDC)
Summerland 3rd behind Surrey, Abbotsford in daily per capita COVID-19 cases

Interior Health is rolling out additional vaccine availability to the community

Amazon is pausing its Prime Day marketing event in Canada this year amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at its facilities in Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Amazon Prime Day halted in Canada due to COVID-19 outbreaks in warehouses

The event was postponed to protect the health and safety of employees and customers, the company says

At this Highway 3 check point, police officers will be asking for identification from drivers, documentation regarding the driver’s name and address, and the purpose for the driver’s travel. (RCMP)
No fines handed out at 1st COVID-19 roadblock as checks move across B.C.

Cpl. Chris Manseau says a total of 127 vehicles were stopped at a roadblock in the Manning Park area

A spectator looks on as the Olympic Caldron is relit in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, February 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Small majority of B.C. residents in favour of a Vancouver 2030 Olympic bid: survey

A new survey shows a split over the possibility of public money being spent to organize and host the winter games

Most Read