• Matt Harrison

There are not two pandemics

If you listen to the news regularly, perhaps you'll have noticed a back and forth between the pandemic and mental health: whenever there is news regarding tighter COVID-19 restrictions, it’s almost immediately followed by stories regarding stress on parents, children, and the apparent mental health 'pandemic' happening in tandem with the coronavirus pandemic. But there's the converse too — stories about the need to open up due to the impact of the pandemic on mental health are almost always followed by news calling for stricter measures and school closures.


I can't tell if this is the media stirring the pot, a knee-jerk reaction by legitimately concerned parties/players, the media's attempt to present 'balanced reporting', and/or something else.


Regardless, it presents a situation where there appears to be two 'pandemics' – COVID-19 and a mental health crisis – that are equally deadly and require us to take a side.


Let's look at some numbers. Almost four million people have died from COVID-19, around 27,000 in Canada alone — that's a staggering number. And it's one that, despite the relief washing over many in the Outaouais as restrictions lift and a sense of normalcy returns, is still raging in other parts of Canada (Indigenous communities in northern Ontario; Manitoba) and around the world (Brazil, India).


Comparatively, numbers on worldwide suicide rates during the pandemic are more difficult to assess.


The British Medical Journal published an article in November 2020, “Prevention must be prioritised while we wait for a clearer picture.” Aside from the obviousness of the article's title, it stated that, while there may be some surveys suggesting an “increase in suicidal thoughts and self-harm,” the “literature on the effect of COVID-19 on suicide should be interpreted with caution.”


The article doesn't dismiss mental health concerns, rather it states that the overall picture on suicide rates is “complex”: “The pandemic has had variable effects globally, within countries and across communities, so a universal effect on suicide rates is unlikely. The impact on suicide will vary over time and differ according to national gross domestic product and individual characteristics such as socioeconomic position, ethnicity, and mental health.”


Closer to home, a 2020 article, “COVID-19 and Suicide,” published by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, based on data between April 1 and August 5, 2020, echoed similar statements to BMJ’s article, adding: “We need to continue to be cautious with oversimplified causative statements.”


The article goes on to state that, “While history demonstrates the potential for the COVID-19 pandemic to impact suicide rates, an increase in suicide is not inevitable.” That said, “early findings show ... a higher number reporting suicidal thoughts and/or behaviours.”


Since the pandemic has been far deadlier, more widespread, and impactful (we can't ignore the startling numbers of the dead and affected), media shouldn't give COVID-19 and mental health equal weight.


What the media's back and forth has done well, though, has been to remind us of people's different experiences: a frontline worker may have worked through the horrors of the ICU, but they may also have struggled with their child's mental health.