Nova Scotia's suicide rate dropped in 2020 in spite of pandemic strain

Nova Scotia recorded fewer suicide deaths in 2020 than in any of the previous five years.

That counters expectations that the pandemic — with its lockdowns, loss of life and economic hardships — could lead to a spike in suicide rates.

According to data recently released by the provincial government, 120 Nova Scotians ended their own lives last year, down from 137 in 2019.

It's the lowest number since 2014, when the medical examiner recorded 113 suicide deaths.

The rate per 100,000 people, which accounts for changes in population size, shows the overall trend remains consistent.

Calls to mental health crisis line shot up

The dip should not be taken to mean the pandemic was without its mental health challenges.

Calls to Nova Scotia's mental health crisis line increased 45 per cent between spring 2019, before COVID-19 was known anywhere in the world, and spring 2021, when the third wave began to crest over Nova Scotia.

Mental health advocate Seana Jewer says the fact additional supports were in place, ready to respond to those challenges, seems to have made the difference.

Seana Jewer is an educator with the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Seana Jewer is an educator with the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.(Submitted by the Canadian Mental Health Association)

Jewer, an educator with the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said she thinks financial programs from the federal and provincial governments, like the CERB and small business relief grants, were a "huge" help in easing stress. Especially, she said, given that financial insecurity can be a risk factor for suicide.

There was also a bolstering of mental health awareness and support last year. Some services moved online, out of necessity, but Jewer said for some that was a boon because it meant the services were more accessible.

Jewer said she is wary, however, of putting too much stock in the last year's lower suicide rate.

Fluctuations happen every year, she pointed out, and if the whole data set is considered back to 2008 — the earliest year for which the medical examiner's numbers are publicly available — suicides are still trending up.

"That overall trend speaks volumes and that is still very much a concern. It's very relevant and there still needs to be a lot of work done around suicide prevention," said Jewer.

Further, she said she's worried last year's increased focus on mental wellness could be fleeting.

"We have to be careful that these supports remain in place, that people still acknowledge the importance of these supports in maintaining and improving people's mental health. Or we could see another rise [in suicide] come again over the next few years."

Trend seen across Canada, internationally

Nova Scotia is not unique in seeing fewer suicides last year.

Several other Canadian provinces recorded a decline in suicide rates for 2020, and the trend extends even beyond Canadian borders.

A group of researchers looked at data on suicide rates from 21 countries and found no significant increases, and some decreases, since the pandemic began in each of the locations. They published their findings in the academic journal The Lancet last month.

Sean Krausert, executive director of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, has been observing the trend across Canada. He said because suicide is complex, and should not be attributed to any one cause, predictions about suicide rates are difficult to make — hence the discrepancy between last year's expectations and the reality told by the numbers.

Sean Krausert is the executive director of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
Sean Krausert is the executive director of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.(Submitted by Sean Krausert)

But now that we have the data, Krausert, like Jewer, said he believes the dip can be at least partly attributed to increased social, economic and mental health support.

The crux of the matter now, he said, is making good on the lessons made available from the COVID-19 experience.

"We have to remember that people were in crisis before COVID and they will continue to be in crisis after," Krausert said.

"What I hope we'll continue is that we learn new ways of interacting and that we have learned that intervention and awareness does help and they will continue to do so."

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling 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).

If you feel your mental health or the mental health of a loved one is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.