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Did the Pandemic Affect Canada’s Suicide Rate?

As a consequence of the unique circumstances presented by COVID-19, like forced self-isolation along with the devastating economic ramifications, research now reveals that large-scale mental health vulnerabilities are to be expected, including a potential increase in Canada’s suicide rate.

More Canadians Considered Suicide During Pandemic 

In 2019, only 2.5% of Canadians reported having suicidal thoughts within the previous year.

But according to the nationwide survey on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and researchers from the University of British Columbia, suicide ideation increased to 6% in May 2020 while the pandemic was at its peak, with 1 in 20 Canadians having thought about taking their own lives.

Unfortunately, the risks were much worse for marginalized communities. Below are some key findings from the study.

“When we strain all the parts of daily living—healthcare, childcare, schooling, job security—we see the direct, negative effects on people’s mental health,” explains Emily Jenkins, the study’s lead researcher and associate professor of nursing at UBC, specializing in mental health and substance use.

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Rising Male Suicide Rate from Opioid Overdose

A separate investigation by Professor John Ogrodniczuk, director of the psychotherapy program in the psychiatry department at UBC, suggests that male suicide rates in Canada are high and continuously on the rise.

According to Ogrodniczuk and his team’s peer-reviewed research, at least eight men die of suicide in the country every day, usually through opioid overdose, firearms, or hanging. The highest suicide rate was observed in Canadian men from the following groups:

  • Indigenous
  • Identify as LGBTQ+
  • Middle-aged
  • In the military
  • Going through divorce

Ogrodniczuk, who leads Heads Up Guys, a website for men struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, suggests that the soaring suicide rate is connected to the pervasive opioid crisis in Canada, which has also seen a steady rise in death toll during the pandemic.

In the Vancouver sun, he was quoted saying, “In a coarse kind of way, you can think of opioid use and other heavy substance abuse as kind of a slow suicide.”

Fast Facts on Opioid and Stimulant Toxicity Deaths in 2020

The Government of Canada reported 5,148 apparent opioid toxicity deaths since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (April to December 2020), representing an 89% increase from the same period in 2019 (2,722 deaths).

Other notable findings include:

  • About 82% of accidental apparent opioid toxicity deaths involved fentanyl in 2020, most of which were identified as non-pharmaceutical.
  • Half (52%) of accidental opioid toxicity deaths in 2020 also involved a stimulant, reflecting the polysubstance nature of Canada’s opioid crisis.
  • Sixty-eight percent of identified apparent stimulant toxicity deaths from January to December 2020 involved cocaine, while 47% involved methamphetamine.
  • Eighty-four percent of apparent stimulant toxicity deaths also involved an opioid in 2020.
  • Males accounted for the majority of accidental apparent stimulant toxicity deaths (77%) from January to December 2020.
  • The majority of opioid and stimulant toxicity deaths in males and females were among individuals aged 20 to 49 years.
  • Pre-COVID, 64% of British Columbia’s opioid-related deaths were men. The rate has shot up to 78% of more than 1,700 who have died since 2019 — a notable trend across Canada and the United States.

Compared to 2019, emergency room visits and hospitalization for opioid-related poisoning increased by 16% and 13% respectively in 2020, with an 88% peak in September. Meanwhile, ER visits and hospital care caused by more potent opioids, fentanyl and derivatives, increased by 28% and 49%, respectively. Men from low-income areas saw the highest increase in substance-related harm.

Among the many factors contributing to this alarming increase in opioid-related fatalities and hospitalization is the increasingly toxic drug supply, increased feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety, and limited availability or accessibility of addiction treatment services due to imposed physical restrictions.

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The Link Between Substance Use and Self-Harm 

Substance abuse disorder is one of the primary risk factors of mental illness and suicide. There are intersectional factors that connect them — genetic vulnerability, epigenetic influences, and involvement of similar pathways in the brain — and the COVID-19 pandemic may only be amplifying this effect.

Canadians who have either a history of or presently struggle with a mental illness reported higher substance use during the pandemic. Likewise, those with past and current addiction disorders experienced more pronounced mental health symptoms. In addition, those with self-perceived poorer mental health were more at-risk of increased alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco use.

Nevertheless, Mental Health Commissions Canada maintains that suicide is a complex issue resulting from multiple factors and reminds everyone to be cautious about making oversimplified causative statements.

You’re Not Alone — We’re Here to Help 

Trying to live in the “new normal” can be difficult for everyone, especially for a person dealing with addiction. You don’t have to go through it alone. Help is always available.

Don’t let yourself or a loved one be a statistic in Canada’s suicide rate. Let Freedom From Addiction help you. For more information about our drug addiction treatments, please do not hesitate to reach out to us. A member of our team will get back to you shortly.

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