As COVID-19 hit and B.C. went into lock down, something happened that B.C.’s crisis line executive director Stacy Ashton hadn’t anticipated.
The provincial government offered her money to help British Columbians deal with pandemic mental health stresses.
And, the Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C. needed a cash infusion as staff had to hire people to work the lines as volunteers went into isolation.
“What we’ve been seeing in terms of COVID impact is our call volume is up 25%,” Ashton said.
While the proportion of the reasons for calls remained stable, Ashton said people were reaching out due to the impacts of world or political events.
Those impacts and the uncertainty were making people anxious and depressed, she said.
Indeed, as Canadians have become more isolated, many have voiced concerns about their mental health, an October report from the non-profit Angus Reid Institute said.
However, while the suicide rate is lower than previous years, new research shows Canadians aren’t reaching out for Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) pandemic health services as much as they might.
And, explained UBC School of Nursing’s Emily Jenkins, some groups have been showing greater pandemic impacts than others, among them people with pre-existing medical conditions, parents of children under 18 and members of the LGBTQ community.
“Not everybody is impacted equally in terms of the mental health impact or suicidal ideation,” Jenkins said.
What has helped, she said, is political response from both Ottawa and Victoria to protect people’s wellbeing. The issue, though, is whether people accept that help.
Canadians not reaching out
However, Canadians aren’t making as much use as they might from the help governments are offering, said new research from UBC and the CMHA released Nov. 10.
While 65% of 3,000 survey participants reported adverse mental health impacts related to COVID-19 in May, only 2% reported accessing online mental health resources such as apps, websites, digital tools or other supports not involving direct contact with a mental health care provider.
“These programs are ideally positioned for the types of difficult experiences and emotions that we’re seeing during the pandemic,” Jenkins said. “They are well suited for people who are having trouble coping and need some support to manage their mental health.”
Only 10% reporting self-harming or coping “not well at all” due to pandemic stress said they had used available tools.
And, among those experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, 8% said they had used the supports, while 7% of respondents who reported “significantly worse” mental health during the pandemic said they had.
Jenkins said suicidal thinking and self harm is likely also influenced by isolation, limited social supports, changes in access to mental health care and services and being overwhelmed from multiple and competing demands.
“Feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness and hopelessness were highly prevalent, which we also know can be linked to suicidality,” Jenkins said.
Indeed, Public Health Agency of Canada surveys found people dealing with such conditions during COVID were four times more likely to have had suicidal thoughts, 2.5 times more likely to feel depressed, three times more likely to have trouble coping and four times more likely to have deliberately harmed themselves.
And, the crisis centre’s call-volume increase is hardly surprising.
Mental health worsened in pandemic
According to Statistics Canada, “the general Canadian population also reported that their mental health worsened after the start of physical distancing.”
But, while Canadians have reported greater mental health concerns during the pandemic, that has not translated into worst-case scenarios in B.C., where the suicide rate has declined compared with 2019.
BC Coroners Service statistics show that overall, the number of B.C., suicide deaths between January and August has appeared to decrease by 7% compared with 2019.
Moreover, compared with last year, each health authority has seen an apparent decline in suicide deaths, with the exception of Island Health, which saw a 3% increase. The health authority with the largest decline is Northern Health at 33%, followed by Fraser Health at 11%. Vancouver Coastal saw a 1% drop while Interior Health saw a 4% decline.
That’s not to say, though, that British Columbians are not feeling pandemic-related stresses.
Crisis centre surveys indicate British Columbians are experiencing mental health concerns. And, it’s Metro Vancouver showing the biggest increase in these concerns, the centre found. Some 28% more Vancouverite respondents said their mental health is fair to poor now, compared with before the pandemic.
And, the crisis centre reported in June, call rates had increased. Earlier, the centre said, “People are facing unforeseen financial and social stresses due to sudden job loss, fear of illness and the pressures of self-isolation, amongst other factors.”
Ashton said what the federal and provincial governments have done in providing assistance to Canadians is in line with what other socially minded nations have done.
She cited a new study from Iran’s Larestan University of Medical Sciences, which indicated suicide rates are lower in those countries offering residents greater social assistance networks, labour market supports and suicide prevention programs.
“The existence of social support and also supporting the labour market in different countries can reduce the harmful psychological effects of economic recession,” the study said.
How to find help with COVID stress
So what can people access to help cope as the pandemic continues?
Victoria announced in April $5 million to expand existing mental health programs and services and launch new services to support British Columbians.
The province has also worked with Foundry Youth Centres, the Canadian Mental Health Association – BC Division, the B.C. Psychological Association and others to deliver expanded mental health services.
Among other online mental health resources available free to Canadians are:
• CMHA’s BounceBack, currently available in B.C., Manitoba and Ontario and expanding to the rest of the country soon through a gift from Bell Let’s Talk;
• Wellness Together Canada, a federally funded program; and
• WellCan, a resource developed and funded by corporate, community and public sector partners.