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No increase in suicide in the early days of COVID pandemic

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new CHÉOS publication shows suicide rates in B.C. did not increase in the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, counter to earlier predictions made by some experts and commentators.  

“Our results put to rest some of the concerns voiced at the beginning of the pandemic about lockdowns and suicide risk,” said Dr. David Barbic, CHÉOS Scientist and lead author of the study.  

Dr. Barbic, along with CHÉOS Scientists Drs. Skye Barbic and Frank Scheuermeyer and Dr. William Honer of UBC Psychiatry and the BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services Research Institute, compared provincial suicide rates in the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic (March–August 2020) to rates in the previous ten years.   

“We did not observe an increase in suicides during this period. If anything, we saw a slight decrease,” said Dr. Barbic, an emergency physician at St. Paul’s Hospital and a clinical assistant professor at the UBC Department of Emergency Medicine.  

The results, published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, are similar to those found in the USAustraliathe UK, and elsewhere. But, Dr. Barbic notes, it is important that we don’t extrapolate beyond the study period. In other words, the study doesn’t tell us what happened in more recent months after increased public health restrictions during the pandemic’s second and third waves.  

Dr. Barbic and his team are currently accessing nationwide data that will allow them to compare between provinces and health authorities for all of 2020. This more detailed data could also allow the researchers to look at the role of gender, ethnicity, and economic factors on suicide, something they were not able to do with the information in the current study.  

“Our results also don’t identify trends in overall depression or psychological distress during the pandemic,” said Dr. Barbic. “We have an upcoming publication that will look at presentation to the emergency department with suicidal thoughts or intentions and how those rates changed at a regional level during the pandemic.”  

This study helps policymakers understand the effects of the pandemic at a local level and gain a better perspective on how government programs can help.  

“Our results could suggest that the support programs implemented by governments successfully mitigated some of the mental health consequences of the pandemic,” said Dr. Barbic. “However, this also means that we need to continue to offer these support programs as we move through the phases of the pandemic.” 

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide or suicide-related behaviour, help is available.