Suicidal thoughts among Canadians significantly higher during COVID-19: StatCan

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When COVID-19 hit in 2020, 16-year-old Lexi Daken’s routine changed.

“She was active in sports and liked going to school … but that changed,” her father, Chris Daken told Global News Wednesday.

“Once COVID-19 hit, she was home, isolated, and didn’t really get that social interaction as much.”

Lexi, who was a Grade 10 student, spent eight hours at Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton, N.B., in February 2021 being assessed by a mental health professional after a guidance counsellor noticed mental health issues.

She eventually left the hospital without receiving any immediate help, according to her family. Less than a week later, she died by suicide.

Daken said the mental impact of lockdown due to COVID-19 was “definitely a part of the outcome.”

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Researchers with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) found that the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among adults was significantly higher in 2021 than in 2019 before COVID-19 hit.

The occurrence of suicidal thoughts among adults in 2021 was 4.2 per cent, which was “significantly higher” than 2.7 per cent in 2019 pre-pandemic, according to the findings published by Statistics Canada Wednesday.

Researchers measured the increase by using the 2021 Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health, conducted between Feb. 1 and May 7, 2021.

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“Sadly, that information is not surprising to us. We’ve been conducting similar research in collaboration with the University of British Columbia, and the data certainly resonates,” said Sarah Kennell, the national director of public policy with the National Office of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

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“And what we’re seeing is really kind of the impact of the prolonged stress and anxiety associated with a pandemic that’s lasted over two years,” she added.

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According to Statistics Canada’s report, a significant increase in the prevalence of suicidal ideation was observed among females and males, age groups younger than 65, those born in Canada, those who had lower educational attainment, or those who never married.

READ MORE: Mental health struggles intensify as pandemic continues

“Suicidal ideation is a feeling or desire to self-harm,” said Kennell. “It’s also negative emotions associated with stress, anxiety, depression and a feeling of hopelessness and loneliness.”

Kennel said even though the report shows a significant increase, it’s still too soon to tell if the rate of suicide is growing in Canada.

“That data is collected on an annual basis by Statistics Canada, and we only have data that dates back to 2020 at this point. And that research tells us that the rates are consistent. But as we know, 2020 was still the early days of the pandemic,” she said.

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A previous study in Canada with data from the first round of the Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health (SCMH) found that the prevalence of suicidal ideation among adults in the fall of 2020 did not differ significantly from the pre-pandemic period, according to Statistics Canada.

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However, it did show the increased prevalence among young adults, people who were born in Canada, people with lower levels of education or household income, front-line workers, and people who experienced pandemic-related income loss or loneliness.

“We’re seeing more increases in suicidal ideation are in late 2021 and also 2022, given the polling research that many organizations across Canada have conducted,” said Kennel.

She said that it’s the loss of social connection as a result of lockdown measures is what has taken a toll of people’s mental health.

“It certainly would justify why we’re seeing that kind of prolonged exacerbation in deteriorations in our mental health and really represent the negative side of the chronicity and the prolonged nature of this pandemic,” Kennel said.

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Researchers said this evidence of increase in suicidal ideation may serve as an early sign of other unknown possible impacts on mental health and suicidality.

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“As the pandemic persists, continuous monitoring of suicide-related outcomes and evaluation of the relationship between COVID-19 impacts and suicidality are necessary so that population-level changes can be detected swiftly and inform public health action,” the study stated.

Daken said he knows that Lexi struggled to get the help she needed, but said the help is there for the people who want it.

“It’s not an easy task most times to get the help,” he said. “But kids and even adults need to know that the help is there if they want to look for it.”

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.

For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Learn more about how to help someone in crisis on the Government of Canada website.

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