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COVID-19 and Suicide: Potential Implications and Opportunities to Influence Trends in Canada – Policy Brief

Purpose

The purpose of this brief is to share the evidence about the potential impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on suicide rates, including suicidal ideation, attempts, and deaths. It outlines the related risk and protective factors and provides an overview of how the current changing environment may influence trends and other psychological impacts related to suicide. This brief is based on a scan of peer-reviewed and grey literature undertaken by the Prevention and Promotion Initiatives team at the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), between April 1 and August 5, 2020. Its threefold purpose is to inform policy makers and those in the health sector of the potential impact of COVID-19 on mental health and suicide rates in Canada, provide insight into which potential risk and protective factors to monitor, and highlight the existing opportunities to influence these trends.

Methodology

This scan was initially intended to inform the MHCC’s external messaging during the pandemic. However, as the briefing note evolved, broadening in scope and content, it was deemed to be of greater interest and importance to policy makers and those working in the health sector. The scan initially concentrated on understanding the potential impact of the pandemic on mental health and suicide rates, using literature from past pandemics and epidemics, economic recessions, and natural disasters. As data on the early impact of COVID-19 began to emerge, however, the report was expanded to include some key findings and issues stemming from national and international literature, figures from Canadian distress centres, and Canadian national survey data. This brief presents the findings of a non-exhaustive scan of peer-reviewed and grey literature, as well as information provided by experts and key stakeholders in the field of suicide prevention, in Canada and internationally. Those who provided information include members of the National Collaborative for Suicide Prevention, the Centre for Suicide Prevention, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Crisis Services Canada, the World Health Organization (WHO), Kids Help Phone, and others.

Key Findings

  1. Suicide is complex and typically the result of multiple factors. We need to continue to be cautious with oversimplified causative statements.
  2. While history demonstrates the potential for the COVID-19 pandemic to impact suicide rates, an increase in suicide is not inevitable. Strong social protection (including universal supports), close attention to risks, and the implementation of best practices in suicide prevention show promise.
  3. It will take time for concrete scientific evidence about the impact of COVID-19 on suicide to accumulate; however, early insights are emerging in the form of opinion pieces, position papers from thought leaders, and early surveillance and research. The MHCC is connected with several leading researchers who have initiated research and surveillance efforts.

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