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COVID-19 significantly increased risk of suicide for people with pre-existing conditions

The figure was also higher for Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and people who identify as LGBTQ+.
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Photo: Depressed individual holding their head in their hands in a dark room / Getty Images

Given the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people feel anxious and stressed and may not know how to manage their emotions. 

Increased isolation, uncertainty over the future, and fear for the health and safety of ourselves and others can lead to feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.

Now, a new survey by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in partnership with researchers at the University of British Columbia finds that, "COVID-19 has significantly increased the suicide risk for Canadians with pre-existing mental health challenges and experiences of marginalization."

The survey was conducted among a nationally representative sample of 3,000 adults living in Canada. It ran from May 14 to 29, as the country started to reopen after lockdown and other COVID-19 measures.

Of the those surveyed, six percent of Canadians said they experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings during the outbreak. However, this figure rises sharply to 18 percent for people with pre-existing mental health challenges. In addition, 16 per cent of Indigenous people and 15 per cent of those with a disability reported suicidal thoughts and feelings. 

Other groups that experienced suicidal thoughts more frequently were people who identify as LGBTQ+ (14 per cent) and parents living with children under 18 (nine per cent).

“COVID-19 may have been termed the ‘great equalizer’, but it certainly hasn’t affected everyone equally—people who were already experiencing mental health challenges and experiences of marginalization appear to be the hardest hit,” says lead researcher Emily Jenkins, a professor of nursing at UBC.

According to Jenkins, the results align with surveys by the Public Health Agency of Canada and others that show threats to Canadians’ mental health are growing in the wake of the pandemic. 

The study also found that people with pre-existing mental health conditions are twice as likely to say their mental health declined over the pandemic. For example, they were two-and-a-half times more likely to feel depressed and three times more likely to have trouble coping. 

In April, a study conducted by the Angus Reid Institute found that that half of Canadians report a worsening of their mental health

Similarly, a new Insights West poll of 817 British Columbians found people are experiencing higher levels of worry, stress, boredom, anxiety and loneliness than before the pandemic, and women appear to be hit harder than men.

Vancouver Is Awesome spoke to Jennifer Hollinshead, founder of Peak Resilience, a Vancouver-based counselling practice, about how she feels the COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to effect mental health, as well as what people may do who are feeling hopeless or fearful.

"We're noticing that people who already struggle are struggling more," remarks Hollinshead. "If someone was already dealing with a mental health issue, such as PTSD, anxiety or depression, they may find that their symptoms are worse."

Peak Resilience has also created a complete COVID-19 Mental Health Guide which is free for Vancouver residents to use as a resource to maintain their own mental health, and promote the mental health of those around them. A few tips from the guide:

  • Recognize that fear and uncertainty are normal and these feelings make sense
  • Remember that ‘panic sells and calm saves’ – be careful about what information you consume
  • Focus on taking small, concrete steps every day to prepare and educate yourself 

Hollinshead also highlights that there are a number of positive things happening during this health crisis, which include the various ways that people are coming together to support each other. She underscores that it is important to remember these good things, too.





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