Many Canadians have struggled with mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a new study from the University of Toronto has found a silver lining. Thanks to emergency social supports put in place by the government to support Canadians during lockdowns, suicide rates have actually decreased over the past year — despite increased levels of unemployment across the country.
Even before the pandemic, Canada was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among Canadian youth and young adults, and members of marginalized communities face particularly high risks.
It’s not surprising that lockdowns, concerns over health and safety, and high levels of unemployment brought about by the pandemic could exacerbate this mental health crisis. In particular, social isolation and unemployment have both previously been linked to increased rates of suicide.
“It was projected that in Canada there would be an increase in completed suicides, or ‘deaths of despair’ unless financial provisions and social programmes […] were immediately initiated to specifically address aspects of insecurity including economic and housing,” McIntyre said in a press release.
To investigate this further, McIntyre and colleagues looked at data from Statistics Canada dating back as far as 2010.
Surprisingly, they found that while unemployment levels in the country did rise during the pandemic, fewer suicides were reported. In fact, there were 1,300 fewer deaths caused by suicide between March 2020 and February 2021 than there were the year prior.
The researchers believe that these reduced rates have to do with emergency social supports put in place during the pandemic. For example, the Canadian government offered financial support to Canadians who were unable to work during the pandemic, and the Ontario government put measures in place to freeze rent prices and reduce evictions.
Canadians were also provided with access to free counselling services to help address mental health challenges.
“[S]uicide rates in Canada decreased against a background of extraordinary public health measures,” the authors concluded.
Yet despite this good news, the mental health situation in Canada remains dire. Studies have shown that rates of anxiety and depression in youth have doubled during the pandemic, and most students don’t know how to get help.
As we emerge from the pandemic, it will be important to critically assess which emergency supports have been most beneficial to Canadians’ mental health. Identifying the factors that are most important to lowering suicide rates is a first step to making sure appropriate social supports are maintained in some form even after COVID-19 cases stabilize. For example, robust financial supports like a guaranteed basic income and greater access to affordable housing are long-term programs that could help address the mental health crisis.
“A national imperative in Canada, and globally, should be to reduce suicide rates,” McIntyre said. “Government interventions […] should be prioritized as part of a national suicide reduction strategy, not only during but after the termination of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 (24/7).