It’s a favorite talking point of people who spread conspiracy theories about COVID: that social distancing, mask wearing and measures to fight the coronavirus are causing a spike in suicides.
That was one of the claims made at an anti-mask rally in Smithers in December. And when Rod Taylor with the Christian Heritage Party of B.C. was running for election in the Stikine riding last year, he claimed “suicides are up,” adding “I think a lot of people are dying of other causes besides COVID.”
Turns out, according to B.C. data, that’s totally incorrect.
“When we look back at the numbers, it just doesn’t pan out,” Tyler Black, a psychiatrist and suicide expert the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, recently told CBC.
From 2019 to 2020, the suicide rate declined by about 7.1 percent, shows a graph he helped prepare featuring publicly available data from health authorities. Within the Skeena region the drop in suicides appears to be even starker.
Northern Health reported the largest decrease of all the provincial health authorities. Suicides decreased here by 33 percent between January to August 2019 and the same period in 2020. “Each health authority has seen an apparent decline in suicide deaths, except for Island Health (3% increase),” a BC Coroners Service report states.
There is no question that the pandemic has been difficult on our mental health. One measure of that is that drug overdose calls are way up across the Skeena and the province. But the effects of months of uncertainty and isolation are not translating into more suicides.
“As someone who studies suicide a lot, I care about distress very much,” Black explained. “But there’s not a straight line between distress and suicide.” Distress centers have been receiving higher-than-normal call volumes, which might be a factor.
Another explanation could be that during large disasters communities tend to pull together. And the relatively strong financial and social support from governments during the pandemic is also important.
This is a hard time–no doubt about that though. If you are considering suicide or know someone who is, there is help available. Call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).