Psychologist says 'come together effect' may have helped reduce suicides in Sask. in 2020

·4 min read

The number of people who committed suicide last year in Saskatchewan was smaller than in recent years.

Last year 134 people reportedly died by suicide in the province. That compares to 204 suicides in 2019 and was the fewest since 2012.

The statistic is surprising to some, as health professionals had expressed concern about a possible spike in suicides because of the pandemic.

Clinical psychologist Lila McCormick said she was initially surprised by the decrease.

"I would have expected, based on the information that's out there, that our suicide numbers have trended upwards. But what we see is the opposite, trending downward."

She said people expected an increase in suicides for a variety of reasons.

"We know that pandemics are hard on people's mental health because they can intensify existing stressors and create new stressors like job loss and potential health difficulties, social isolation and financial stress," she said. "Even just an economic recession, which itself is a well-documented consequence of pandemics, has been shown to be linked to an increase in suicide rates."

When McCormick delved into the research, she found reasons why suicides might be down.

"If you look at what we learned from previous epidemics or natural disasters, we find that there can be a short term decrease in suicides that can occur initially due to something that's been termed the 'come together effect,'" she said.

"This happens when there's an increased social cohesion or a pulling together phenomenon where people and communities stand together and care for each other in their time of need."

McCormick said that despite being physically distanced from one another, people are finding creative ways to offer social supports.

"This can lead individuals who are previously feeling quite isolated, marginalized to experience increased social support at this time."

Shutterstock / Mita Stock Images
Shutterstock / Mita Stock Images

Other factors

McCormick said another factor that may be playing a role is people shifting their focus because of the pandemic.

"It can make previous problems appear less pressing, at least for the moment, and potentially make one's health or life seem more valuable," she said.

"People might also shift their attention onto how to survive or those very tangible hurdles in front of them, you know, paying rent or staying healthy."

Saskatchewan was not alone in having fewer suicides.

Alberta and B.C. also saw lower rates of completed suicides in 2020.

McCormick said another report shows there has been no increase in suicide rates in some areas of the U.S., Australia and England, and a reduction in Norway.

What's ahead

McCormick said those numbers might not stay low in the coming months as restrictions stretch on.

"Financial stressors may be adding up for a lot of people," she said. "Christmas was a tough time for a lot of people who are feeling isolated and can really highlight some of that isolation."

Cold weather in the coming months will lead to less chances to gather outdoors.

"What has been seen in the past is that there can be an additional reduction in suicide rates, but then afterwards, something called an 'echo pandemic' can occur such that the toll of COVID-19 might result in a wave of increased mental health challenges and mental illness."

A survey conducted in September by the Canadian Mental Health Association found 40 per cent of respondents in Saskatchewan and Manitoba reported their mental health had deteriorated since the pandemic.

McCormick said that if you are worried about someone, ypu should look for signs such as isolation, loss, feelings of hopelessness, physical illness, talking about suicide, anxiousness, unreasonable anger or mood changes.

She said if you are feeling stress seek help from your doctor or mental health provider or service.

CBC News Graphics
CBC News Graphics

CBC Saskatchewan wants to hear how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted you. Share your story with our online questionnaire.

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | crisisservicescanada.ca (chat)

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.

Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or chat online at hopeforwellness.ca.