A few weeks ago, news of a friend’s death was posted on Facebook. The family’s devastation over her sudden demise was evident in their social media posts. I reached out to convey my sympathies and also enquired about what had happened. While my condolence messages were acknowledged, the question about whether the death was COVID-19-related met with silence. I was informed that she had been ill.
Given the stigma associated with contracting the virus, I thought perhaps they were being discreet. Little did I know at the time that the coronavirus had claimed her life, but in a different way.
As I expressed my shock about her passing to friends, I learned about her struggle with mental health issues over the years. Allegedly the move to Canada had caused her a lot of financial and mental stress. She became depressed and had virtually isolated herself from everyone. The “psychological pandemic,” as it is sometimes referred to, is believed to have pushed her over the edge.
A national survey from the Canadian Mental Health Association and UBC at the end of June warned about more Canadians contemplating suicide during the pandemic. The disruption of life brought about by the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown was stressful for all, but more so for individuals who already had mental health issues.
Over the past few months mental health experts have continually expressed their fears that social isolation, job losses, money concerns, being confined to close quarters at home, the death of a loved one and the fear of contracting COVID-19 were likely to have a lasting effect on those with psychological vulnerabilities. This included an elevated risk of suicide. Of particular concern were individuals suffering from depression and seniors living in isolation as well as COVID-19 survivors.
With evidence of suicide rates rising after disasters like 9/11, the economic downturn of 2008 and the SARS outbreak, psychiatrists predicted that virus would take a mental toll both now and in the coming years. In fact, several believed that the longer the lockdown and economic impact, the higher suicide rates would be.
With studies showing a surge in Google searches about financial difficulties during this time, and the link between monetary distress and suicides, researchers were increasingly worried about the outcome. Although suicide-related queries were lower than expected, long-term suicidality was still a huge concern given the impact of COVID-19 on known risk factors for suicide. Many mental health experts believed that the consequences were more long term.
The World Health Organization also highlighted the mental health repercussion of the pandemic. And the United Nations urged governments around the world to take the mental health consequences seriously and provide adequate support.
The coronavirus is said to have created a mental health crisis in India. The BBC too reported a significant rise in demand for mental health support in the UK with many cases accessing these services for the first time.
Here at home, a Canadian Mental Health Association study on the impact of COVID-19 found that 38 per cent of people surveyed felt their mental health declined because of it. Another 46 per cent said they felt anxious and worried, while 14 per cent were having trouble coping and six per cent had suicidal thoughts.
Healthcare experts point out the pandemic may also cause individuals without previous mental health problems to be stressed and have suicidal thoughts. Therefore, it is important to recognize signs and seek help both for ourselves and our loved ones. This is something that some victims’ families and friends wished they had done.
Negative connotations surrounding the illness must also change. It is felt attaching the word ‘committed’ to ‘suicide’ is insensitive to an individual’s distress and has implications of committing a sin or crime. Suicide awareness groups believe it should be treated like any other disease. The term ‘died by suicide’ puts this in the right perspective. It acknowledges that the ailing person lost their battle with the disease just as with cancer or any other ailment.
A death by suicide leaves a trail of questions not just for victim’s loved ones but the community as a whole. Suicide is considered a major cause of ‘premature’ and ‘preventable’ death. Calling it a ‘selfish’ or ‘cowardly’ act is undermining the individual’s struggle with mental illness as well as our responsibilities towards them.