B.C. suicide rate down during pandemic as 'come together effect' observed
VANCOUVER -- One of the mental health concerns raised about strict lockdowns and economic impacts stemming from the pandemic hasn’t come about – in fact, the opposite has happened. The suicide rate in B.C. has gone down during COVID-19.
Data tracked by the BC Coroners Service shows that the number of suicide deaths from January to August of 2020 decreased by seven per cent compared to the same time period of 2019.
“There is a very predictable effect whenever there’s a crisis: it’s called the ‘come together effect.’ It’s been seen during floods and hurricanes and wartime,” said University of British Columbia associate professor in suicidology and child psychiatry Dr. Tyler Black.
While the new statistics may be surprising given the many surveys finding people are more anxious, depressed or stressed out by the pandemic and the social changes due to physical distancing, Black, one of Canada’s foremost experts on suicide, says he expected the decline.
“When B.C. was locked down, sure it was stressful, but we were also being economically supported by a federal government. We had these moments of coming together every seven o'clock to cheer for health-care heroes. Everybody was solely focused on protecting other people and unsurprisingly we saw a decrease in suicide rates for March, April and May.”
Black said the social safety net of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and rental supplements kept those most impacted from being fearful of their own survival, while others fared better when they didn’t have to face stressors at work or school.
And, he added, the idea of a delayed rise in suicide deaths due to the economic consequences of a crisis isn’t supported by historic data. For example, Black said, the 2008 recession and the unemployment during Spanish Flu of 1918-19 didn’t result in a significant increase in suicides.
However, the new numbers don’t necessarily mean that people are thriving.
“Suicide rates are not a very good barometer for the mental health of a community because suicide rates are reflective of a very small portion of people who have mental health challenges and many people who die by suicide don’t specifically have mental health challenges — they’re facing a life circumstances or it’s a momentary lapse in judgment where there’s an intoxication or something like that,” he said.
“So it’s a very rough measure but it’s the one people pull out when they try to make (a) political argument one way or the other — 'we have to do this because suicide rates will increase or decrease.’”
And some people are undoubtedly in distress. Family members have blamed suicides on pandemic-imposed stressors and suicide hotlines have seen a spike in urgent calls for help.
A study out of the University of Toronto warned the economic upheaval could see a surge in people taking their own lives.
The federal government took those concerns so seriously it’s investing money in prevention programs – particularly those that benefit marginalized Canadians.
Black says social and economic supports are incredibly important, as is connecting with loved ones, friends or acquaintances at a time when everyone could use a friendly message or conversation.
“My intention has never been to say this pandemic has been easy; this pandemic has been awful, it’s been a rough time,” said Black. “During rough times we need to reach out to each other and that does save lives.”