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As COVID-19 stress builds, study warns of potential spike in suicides
TORONTO -- As more studies emerge highlighting the toll COVID-19 is having on Canadians’ mental health, Vanessa Leslie knows all too well how the virus can play a part in someone’s well-being.
Leslie’s husband Richard died by suicide early May after letting his plane crash into Georgian Bay, leaving her a widow with six grieving children in Oro-Medonte, Ont.
Leslie told CTV News that the isolation that came with COVID-19 restrictions likely played a part in her husband’s worsening mental health.
“When a suicide happens, it’s multiple things that lead up to that point,” she said. “You can't say it's just COVID, but could it be a contributing factor? Absolutely. Could it be the point that tipped it over? Absolutely. There's never just one reason.”
Richard was a business owner and firefighter who enjoyed the camaraderie of his local station. He also enjoyed snowmobiling and fly fishing with his friends, but COVID-19 restrictions forced him to cancel most of those plans.
“All the things that made him super happy, that he enjoyed doing, that just made life what life is, was all being taken from him and then they were coming out saying it was going to be 18 months to two years of this and I think the thought of 18 months to two years of living in such restrictions was just too much,” Leslie said.
She said her husband suffered a bout of depression some 15 years ago, but was healthy up until three weeks before his death, when he stopped sleeping and became more agitated.
“If you don't sleep for even two days, your mind does strange things, it doesn't operate properly,” she said. “There was an element of the fact that he wasn't sleeping, the added stress, the added business, just the dynamics of having the whole family and home.”
“Whether you can't go to work, whether you can't go to school, all of a sudden having everybody together, that is a contributing factor.”
Leslie is not alone in losing a loved one due at least in part to the struggle of dealing with the pandemic. She said since her husband’s death, she’s heard from six women in Ontario whohave lost their husbands to suicide in the last few weeks.
STUDY LINKS COVID-19 UNEMPLOYMENT TO SUICIDE
A new study out of the University of Toronto suggests that the economic upheaval surrounding the virus could result in a spike of as many as 2,114 deaths by suicide above the Canadian average by the end of 2021.
“We're seeing some of the highest unemployment rates in this country since the early 1980s, we've seen the loss of 15 years of job creation in Canada in only two months,” said Dr. Roger McIntyre, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto.
“The labour contraction, the unemployment, and the income insecurity has resulted in an increase in the number of suicides projected in our country.”
The researchers also found that for every percentage point the unemployment rate rises among people below the age of 65, the excess deaths by suicide -- meaning the additional suicides above the national average -- also raises by a percentage point.
“These are significant numbers of people who are at risk, but the important point is this is not a done deal,” said McIntyre. “This is something that can be prevented by getting access to treatments. The treatments are very good. We need better psychiatric first aid, and treatments that can deal with the distress that people are experiencing.”
Leslie believes the study showsevidence that the pandemic is claiming more lives than the provincial numbers show, in part because some grieving families aren’t reporting the suicides publicly.
“I think people can deal with a lot of elements, they can deal with job loss and they can deal with lack of money if they have social support, but you take that social support away and that's really hard to deal with,” she said.
MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS LINES REPORTING SPIKES
On the front lines of the mental health crisis in Canada, national hotlines are seeing exactly what McIntyre’s study outlines.
Stephanie MacKendrick, CEO of Crisis Services Canada, said their distress centre members have seen up to a 90 per cent increase in calls to their hotlines, including a 200 per cent increase in “active rescues,” meaning the caller is in imminent danger.
“In addition to having more calls, (the agents are) also saying that in some cases, up to 100 per cent of them are either calls that are the result of issues from COVID-19, or are made worse by COVID-19,” she said.
“About 25 per cent of the centres that we surveyed recently said that more than 75 per cent of their calls either related to COVID, or were because of worsening conditions due to COVID.”
Margaret Eaton, national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Associationsaid calls to the CMHA’s 78 branches across the country have increased 50 to 60 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We believe this is already a sign that that risk of suicide is very prevalent right now,” she said.
She said CMHA employees have been doing their best to handle additional demand by meeting in-person if someone walks into a centre, or delivering service over the phone or digitally whenever possible.
“The increase in demand has been very hard on our mental health frontline responders and it shows that COVID-19 has had a strong impact on people,” she said.
Eaton said up to half of Canadians believe COVID-19 has impacted their mental health, whether because of the increased isolation, concerns about the virus itself, or worries regarding their financial situation and the safety of their loved ones.
GOVERNMENT MEASURES SOUGHT
McIntyre believes additional measures from the federal and provincial governments can help flatten the potential curve of suicide in Canada.
We need to have a national strategy implemented locally that can prevent the increase in suicides,” he said.
This national strategy, he suggests, includes continued wage subsidy and support for small businesses, but also an additional access to mental health resources for Canadians.
“What I'm especially concerned about is the ongoing situation in Canada, where there remains uncertainty as to when the economy will fully open up,” he said. “This creates ongoing chronic stress, increasing the risk, not only for suicide, but also mental disorders that are associated with suicide, like depression and drug and alcohol misuse.”
McIntyre also believes a safe, but swift reopening of the economy will help with Canadians’ mental health.
‘GO GET THE HELP’
Meanwhile Leslie is urging anyone -- especially men -- to seek treatment when they are facing difficult times.
“If you need it, go get the help,” she said.
“Treat your brain like you would your heart … and get the help,” she added. “If you had a heart attack, you'd have no problems going to the hospital. If you're contemplating suicide, your brain is just like your heart. Take yourself to the hospital. Reach out to somebody, because at the end of the day, COVID means nothing if you're not here.”
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and need to speak with someone, hereare some resources:
Crisis Services Canada, enables callers anywhere in Canada to access crisis support by phone, in French or English: toll-free 1-833-456-4566 Available 24/7