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First worldwide study of suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic

April 13, 2021

An international study investigating suicide rates in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic has found no apparent increase in suicide rates. Study data demonstrates that around the world, suicides generally stayed the same or even decreased in some countries. In the three Canadian provinces with available data for the study timeframe, there were decreases in suicides in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

The study was conducted by the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration, which has been established to monitor the global impact of COVID-19 on suicide.

This is the first study to examine suicides across countries worldwide during the pandemic and was recently published in The Lancet Psychiatry.

“COVID-19 has clearly had an impact on the mental health of individuals around the world and there have been concerns that the pandemic may lead to increased suicide rates. Our results are an important reminder that suicide is not inevitable, even in difficult times,” says Dr. Mark Sinyor, study co-investigator, psychiatrist and suicide prevention expert in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and associate professor at the University of Toronto.

Researchers examined suicide data from 21 countries, or areas within countries, where data was available from April to October 2020, and analyzed past suicide data with the observed number of suicides in the early stages of the pandemic.

Researchers note that data collected was primarily from high and upper middle-income countries as data was not available for low and lower middle-income countries that may be particularly impacted by the pandemic, but do not have timely suicide data readily available.

The available Canadian data showed statistically significant decreases in suicide rates of 20 per cent in Alberta and 24 per cent in British Columbia as well as a 19 per cent reduction in Manitoba that approached significance.

The study highlights a number of factors that may explain the lack of increase in suicides in the early part of the pandemic in some countries, including strengthened mental health services and financial support initiatives to assist individuals with the pandemic’s economic impact. Protective factors, particularly in the pandemic’s early months, may have also played a role in the study findings. For example, people are connected through technology in ways that have not been possible during previous infectious disease outbreaks, and some relationships may have been strengthened through the stay-at-home orders with individuals being at home more consistently.

“A combination of an emotional ‘coming together’ phenomenon in a shared crisis and the availability of virtual connectivity may have also helped to prevent suicides,” explains Dr. Sinyor. “Suicide often arises when people feel separate and as though they don’t belong. For many people, the collective feeling that ‘we are all in this together’ can lead to a greater sense of belonging which, in turn, can help to prevent suicide.”

But Dr. Sinyor and his colleagues urge caution in interpreting these findings given that the pandemic is still ongoing and its effects on world mental health could persist well after it is over. “One suicide is too many and now is not the time for complacency,” says Dr. Sinyor. “Policy makers and governments need to continue their work to bolster the social safety net and to improve access to mental healthcare to mitigate the harms of the pandemic. If we all work together and continue efforts to provide people with the tools they need, we can find hope and resilience even in this challenging situation.”

Study investigators note more research is needed in studying the pandemic’s impact on suicides in low- and lower middle-income countries.

Suicide prevention is among the many areas of research at the new Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre, to be built at Sunnybrook.

“The pandemic has been incredibly stressful for so many people,” says Dr. Sinyor. “It is important for everyone to know that they are not alone. There is hope. If you need support, reach out to services and resources in your area.”

Read the full study »

Mental health resources for coping during COVID-19 from Sunnybrook experts

If you need help in an emergency, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

Media contact:

Jennifer Palisoc
Communications Advisor
Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre