An Alberta family doctor says he is seeing as many as 12 patients a day suffering with mental health challenges when he used to see just one or two a day in 2019.
Dr. Mukarram A. Zaidi, a family physician in Calgary, says a number of factors, including the pandemic, are contributing to a huge spike in anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies.
“I don’t have concrete numbers but I’m seeing more and more patients with depression,” he told Global News.
Zaidi said many people have lost their jobs and most of those who haven’t are working from home.
We used to socialize after work, go out and about on the weekend, go out for dinner, workout and catch up with family and friends.
“That has all gone. A: we don’t have work, B: we are working from home, C: we don’t go out.”
Additionally, many Albertans live in housing that doesn’t have a dedicated space either for work or for working out and staying active.
“A lot of people are working from their basement,” Zaidi said. “Many of patients live in apartments and can’t work out.
“It builds on each other… Everyone’s on edge,” he said.
“Not socializing with one another is a huge deal. Not being allowed to have family visit you… it’s skyrocketed depression in younger patients that I see.”
The big increase in the number of patients suffering from severe depression is what led Zaidi to share a message on Twitter earlier this week.
Zaidi believes in addition to the economy and the pandemic, political rhetoric is exacerbating the stress Albertans — both patients and physicians — are feeling.
“They don’t see ways the economy will improve. They don’t see hope.”
“The government has no clear message,” he said.
Confusion and disappointment over vaccine timelines is also increasing worry among Albertans, Zaidi said.
“Their anxiety and depression is increasing on a daily basis.”
Last spring, the Calgary Distress Centre saw a 21 per cent increase in suicide-related calls between January and May. Also over that time period, the centre received more than 5,500 crisis contacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The centre’s director of communication, Diane Jones Konihowski, said the majority of calls the organization has received are mainly related to isolation, anxiety and depression amid the ongoing pandemic.
While provincial data from the chief medical examiner for 2020 and 2019 is still considered preliminary and may change as cases are finalized, the suicide rate for Alberta actually appears to be trending downward.
In 2020, there were an estimated 468 deaths by suicide, the highest number occurring in the 30-34 age group. The previous year, there were an estimated 601 deaths by suicide, with the highest number reported in the 55-59 age group.
In both years, these occurrences were three times more common in men than women.
The two years before that — 2018 and 2017 — recorded similar rates of suicide: 630 and 647, respectively.
There are a number of virtual and remote addiction and mental health supports and services available to Albertans at this time, including:
- Provides confidential, anonymous service, including crisis intervention, information on mental health programs, and referrals to other agencies if needed.
- The Mental Health Helpline is available at 1-877-303-2642.
- Provides links to supports and services, including addiction and mental health, available to Albertans.
- Free service providing three months of daily Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)-based text messages written by mental health therapists.
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- Clinically moderated, online peer-to-peer mental health community that empowers individuals to anonymously seek and provide support 24/7.
- Togetherall is free to all Albertans aged 16+.
- Services and supports free to Albertans.
- Provides information, including support via phone, text, chat and website referrals and resources addiction and mental health referrals and resources.
- Professionally trained specialists are available by texting INFO to 211, live chat through the website, ab.211.ca or calling 2-1-1.
- Offers a 24/7 helpline for people thinking about or affected by suicide via phone, text or chat (1-833-456-4566).
- Provides free, confidential 24/7 services for children, youth, and young adults.
- Services include professional counselling by phone, and volunteer-led information and crisis support via phone, text, or chat.
- Provides free online resources, tools, apps and connections to trained volunteers and qualified mental health professionals when needed.
- Available 24-7
- Offers information, referrals and volunteer-led, text based support for Albertans of all ages, by texting CONNECT to 741741.
The Edmonton Police Service reported a slight increase in this type of call for service from 2019 to 2020.
In 2019, there were 4,941 calls for service related to attempted suicide or suicide. In 2020, there were 4,953.
The number of people who lost their lives to suicide (reported to EPS) rose from 39 in 2019 to 61 in 2020.
“Check on Welfare” calls also rose, from 970 in 2019 to 1,194 in 2020.
Zaidi said the increase in mental health-related cases is also taking a toll on physicians, especially when there are multiple patients with complex needs.
“It takes a lot out of you,” he said.
Many of the patients he sees for severe depression come to him because they have no where else to go, Zaidi said.
“People can’t afford to go to counselling, so while the patient came in for ‘not feeling well for some time’… after looking, bloodwork, asking them questions… It turns out they have severe depression and severe anxiety.”
Zaidi said he then talks with the patient about the diagnosis, discusses possible causes, symptoms and treatment options.
“Seeing 12 in a day? It’s a lot on our mental health as well.
“For my colleagues — family doctors and emergency doctors are under huge pressure.”
The sour relationship between the UCP government and doctors isn’t helping, he said.
“We don’t have an agreement with the province about how we will be paid.”
On the election trail, Jason Kenney was focused on trimming Alberta’s health-care costs (42 per cent of the province’s operating costs) and often targeted physician pay.
Once elected, the United Conservatives passed Bill 21, which allowed the health minister to terminate the province’s physician compensation agreement with the Alberta Medical Association.
In February 2020, the master agreement was cancelled and Minister Tyler Shandro announced a number of changes to physicians’ pay. In July, the AMA released a survey showing 42 per cent of doctors who responded are thinking about leaving Alberta.
“The stress that we are under since COVID started… we are in a negative balance,” Zaidi said. “But not even knowing what’s coming up next is a huge stress for family physicians.
“Not knowing if we can pay the bills and take care of patients.”
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.