Unemployment brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown could trigger as many as 2,100 extra suicides this year and next, predicts a new study whose lead author is calling on governments to re-open the economy faster.
The paper by University of Toronto researchers says action is “urgently needed” to prevent mental distress that could lead to hundreds more people than usual taking their own lives.
The analysis is based on historic evidence that each one per cent rise in joblessness is associated with a similar one per cent hike in the number of people who die by suicide.
The challenge now is to stave off those deaths and one key is to get the millions of Canadians rendered unemployed by the lockdown back to work, said Dr. Roger McIntyre, the paper’s lead author.
The lockdown made sense initially, but the time has passed to fully restart, ensuring safety measures such as social distancing and use of masks in public spaces are followed, he said.
“It’s long overdue that the economy should be opening up in areas that are less affected than others,” said the psychiatry professor, an expert on depression. “We have to move to a more smart containment … You cannot actually protect someone’s physical health and just go ahead and destroy their mental health. That makes no sense to me.”
Some other experts, though, voiced skepticism Wednesday that an epidemic of self-harm is in the making, suggesting that government support programs have largely mitigated the psychological fallout of the lockdown.
The study analyzed the correlation between unemployment and rates of suicide, finding that between 2000 and 2018 in Canada, each one per cent rise in joblessness was associated with a one per cent increase in suicide rate.
It’s an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship, and suicide is never due to one factor, but there is considerable evidence of the link between employment and suicide, McIntyre said.
The researchers looked at two scenarios, one where unemployment rises to 8.3 per cent this year and 8.1 per cent the next and another, “extreme” case where the rates are 16.6 and 14.9 per cent.
Statistics Canada put unemployment at 13 per cent in April, with some experts estimating it could rise to 16 per cent.
Applying the one per cent correlation, the paper in the journal Psychiatry Research projects the first scenario would result in 418 additional suicides this year and 2021, and the second scenario 2,114 more deaths.
That’s on top of 4,000 or so annual suicides recorded now.
McIntyre said the income-replacement and wage-subsidy programs put in place by government are an excellent response, as is the $240 million the federal government promised for online mental health services and other recent investments in the field.
But he said a return to work is essential to alleviate financial pain, citing comments by the Canada Mortgage and Housing CEO that as many as 20 per cent of mortgages could soon go into arrears.
Not everyone in the field sees a potential mental health calamity coming.
The model McIntyre and his co-author created is a “simplistic” one that focuses on just one factor — unemployment — of the many that might drive suicide, said Karen Letofsky of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
And unlike in previous economic downturns, governments have acted aggressively to alleviate the hardship, while at the same time pumping more money into mental health care, she said.
“There has been unprecedented focus on mental health … as well as unprecedented financial accommodation,” she said. “So there is no comparison.… The modelling focusing on one factor could send a misleading message that it’s inevitable.”
David Klonsky, a University of British Columbia psychologist, questioned whether the link between unemployment and suicide is quite as strong as the study suggested.
Some research, for instance, has found the association diminishes when social-welfare measures are implemented to counteract the economic harm, he said.
There is also evidence that times of national adversity, such as the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S., actually see suicide rates fall, said Klonsky.
That said, even with the billions in aid disbursed by the federal government, many people are staring at financial disaster, and could suffer mentally as a result, he said.
“If your livelihood is being threatened — a business you built up — if your ability to provide for your family is taken away from you, that’s incredibly painful,” said Klonsky. “If things don’t get better, you do lose hope.”