Mental health crisis needs in Cape Breton rose during the pandemic

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Cape Breton regional police say calls to attend attempted suicides rose during the pandemic and Nova Scotia Health says that's not a surprise. (Matthew Howard/CBC - image credit)
Cape Breton regional police say calls to attend attempted suicides rose during the pandemic and Nova Scotia Health says that's not a surprise. (Matthew Howard/CBC - image credit)

Cape Breton regional police say the number of calls they got for attempted suicides rose earlier this year compared to last year and they attribute that to public health restrictions implemented because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The provincial government says it does not track attempted suicide statistics, but Nova Scotia Health says the police numbers are not a surprise.

In June, Staff Sgt. Jodie Wilson told a Cape Breton regional police commission meeting that the total number of calls for service was up this spring, compared to the same period last year. Nova Scotia was under pandemic lockdowns for both periods.

Most of the calls were for domestic issues and mental health and addictions, Wilson said.

"Because of the lockdown and the pandemic, there's been a significant rise in attempted suicides and calls of that nature," Wilson said.

In total, police answered 17,012 calls from April to June 2021, which was up 19.6 per cent from the 14,224 calls in the same period last year, she said.

Before the pandemic, Cape Breton police said they respond to about 60,000 calls a year, which would be about 15,000 calls during any three-month period.

Steve Berry/CBC
Steve Berry/CBC

"Unfortunately, when people are locked down, oftentimes liquor offences or domestic-related offences rise, along with complaints about the provincial health restrictions from individuals, so police have to respond to more calls."

She didn't explain why she thought the public health restrictions were a factor in the rise, given that they were in place during both time frames.

In an email later, Cape Breton police said they handled 156 attempted suicides in spring 2020 and 163 in the same period this year. They didn't provide numbers for non-pandemic years.

However, police declined further comment.

Chris Bourque, manager of intake urgent care for Nova Scotia Health's mental health and addictions, said the province does not track specific causes, but overall requests for urgent and crisis care in Cape Breton were up this spring by nearly 60 per cent.

From April to June 2020, the number of crisis/urgent visits for all mental health and addictions issues was 449. That number rose to 707 in the same period this year. Nova Scotia was under pandemic lockdowns during both periods.

It includes inpatient visits to the hospital and outpatient visits by the urgent care team, and the numbers are similar across the province.

Here are the visits by zone from April to June 2020 compared to the same period in 2021:

  • Central: 191 to 458

  • Eastern: 503 to 775

  • Northern: 217 to 248

  • Western: 155 to 224

Bourque said during the lockdowns, people lost social connections, which not surprisingly led to an increase in stress.

But he said some people in crisis took advantage of telephone and online options.

Virtual programs to continue

No one knows if requests for urgent or crisis care will ease now that restrictions are being lifted, he said, but virtual programs are here to stay.

"I think that's the exciting piece as we move away from some of the restrictions is that we still have the opportunity to use some of these virtual platforms in a way that we can continue to reach our communities and provide support when it's required," Bourque said.

"We don't like to see anybody experiencing any form of distress, but when people are, that's what our programs are designed for, to provide that support and direction and navigation for our community members. So we're happy that we've been able to continue to provide that, in a different manner."

Many non-crisis and non-urgent programs were reduced during the height of the pandemic, which led to increased calls to the mental health crisis line, but the province says in-person services were always available if needed.

Some say supports making a difference

Private practice therapists also reported seeing increased calls for help with youth mental health.

Despite all that, the number of suicides in Nova Scotia actually dropped in 2020, which some in the field attribute to better supports.

In response to the increased numbers, the province boosted its mental health and addictions budget earlier this year.

Where to go for help

In addition to in-person services, Nova Scotia Health offers online mental health services.

People who are looking for support are encouraged to call their local clinic, the Mental Health and Addictions intake line at 1-855-922-1122 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays or the crisis line.

The province's toll-free Mental Health Crisis Line is 1-888-429-8167 and available 24 hours, seven days a week. People can also contact the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 anytime of day.

If you're experiencing an emergency, call 911.

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