City police report February rise in suicide, mental-health calls

·4 min read

Barrie police report an increasing number of suicide-related calls in February, prompting the local police service to reach out to partners.

City police received 42 calls for service related to suicide. They involved suicides, attempted suicides or people reaching out for help.

“We have never seen that in the top 20 since we’ve been reporting in this manner,” Chief Kimberley Greenwood told members of the police services board on Thursday.

She pointed out there have been year-over-year increases in Mental Health Act (MHA) calls for service as well with 116 reported last month. This year’s numbers follow an increase that occurred during the same period last year.

“We’re working with our partners to address those calls for service,” the chief said.

While the suicide-related calls were high, there was a difference between how they were reported this February compared to last, said Barrie police communications co-ordinator Peter Leon.

He also pointed to the increasing number of overall health calls made to city police.

In February 2018, police responded to 48 calls. That went up to 49 in 2019 and to 75 in 2020 with that further rising to 116 this year.

With this ongoing climb over the past four years, it’s difficult to peg the role the pandemic has had on mental health and calls to police, Leon said.

Barrie police launched the Community Outreach and Support Team (COAST) two years ago, designed to extend crisis intervention for mental health-related issues. Two dedicated officers are now on the team working with representatives of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) responding to those experiencing a mental-health crisis, including 911 calls.

And that team did respond to nearly the double number of calls in February, mostly to 911, for help, said Aleta Armstrong, community engagement director at the Barrie CMHA office.

“There certainly is the data to back the jump in February,” she said, pointing to the COAST team’s 107 responses in February, up from 58 in January. “As well, the crisis calls are up (to the CMHA)… in February, compared to last February, about 22 per cent.

“February is a tough month anyway. We know for all of our mental health because of the time of year, the lack of sunlight… but this year, as we know, the added anxiety and disruption that COVID has caused has added if not the number, certainly the severity of calls.”

Following the pandemic safely protocols, such as staying at home and being socially distanced from others, is sure to throw many off their game, Armstrong said. The resulting isolation and loneliness does have an impact.

But coping strategies, like support groups or services, might not be as available because of the pandemic, further complicating people’s lives.

“The workers generally have talked about more angst in people’s calls - the anxiety of not knowing where to go and what to do,” Armstrong said.

The CMHA crisis line at 705-728-5044 or 1-888-893-8333 is available to everyone 24/7. In addition an on-duty worker can be accessed through the main line at 705-726-5033, which Armstrong said is a good resource for those who don’t know where to start or who to call. A COAST officer call also be requested for mental-health emergencies through 911.

The CMHA, she said, continues to provide services, shifting to online support where possible and face-to-face when required.

Barrie’s Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) has addiction counsellors working seven days a week. A “yellow zone” in the emergency department is also dedicated for patients with non-violent and non-suicidal crisis or depression anxiety and are seen by a crisis team worker before the doctor.

RVH reports that while there were fewer emergency visits related to mental health in 2020, down about 13 per cent from 2019, more mental health diagnoses were made.

A recent CMHA survey shows “alarming trends” of the pandemic’s strain on the mental health of Ontarians.

In the poll released earlier this week, its third during the pandemic, one-third of Ontarians consider their current state of mental health as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent,’ a significant decrease from 52 per cent as recorded in its first poll last May. And nearly 80 per cent of Ontarians now believe we’ll be in a serious mental-health crisis post-pandemic.

Loneliness was considered a major factor among respondents as were rates of stress, anxiety and depression were.

The poll also showed a perception of dramatic worsening in mental health, positive and negative impacts on relationships and concern over the virus itself.

“We’re dealing with very different times this year,” said Leon, referring to the pandemic and the impact of the resulting emergency measures, including lockdowns.

While there’s no clear indication specifically why there are more calls for help, he said there is clear indication that the pandemic is impacting the community in many ways.

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, there is increased hope, he added.

Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,