Tracking the Prevalence and Incidence of Modifiable Suicide Risk Factors During the COVID-19 Pandemic to Inform Targeted Suicide Prevention in British Columbia

This award is co-funded by Health Research BC, through CIHR’s Operating Grant: COVID-19 Mental Health & Substance Use Service Needs and Delivery Funding Opportunity.


Problem: Half of Canadians report worsened mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic began disrupting our lives this Spring. These impacts, combined with rising prevalence of known suicide risk factors such as unemployment and financial hardship, social isolation, alcohol and substance use, relationship strain and domestic violence, have raised concerns that of rising suicide risk in the Canadian population. Canada loses 3,800 to 4,500 lives to suicide each year. Suicide death and bereavement confer long-term psychological and social risk to families and communities. A small increase in suicide rate can thus result not only in excess loss of life, above and beyond the direct impacts of the pandemic, but also confer long-term vulnerability in our communities.


Research: In collaboration with an international team of researchers led by investigators Shanaya Rathod and Peter Phiri in the UK, our Canadian team aims to characterize the specific mental health and related cognitive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to inform evidence-based policy that can mitigate secondary mental health and suicide risk. We will conduct three pan-Canadian general population surveys, in September 2020, December 2020, and March 2021. For each survey, we will recruit at least 5,000 community adults, balanced by sex, age, and geographic region. Surveys will focus on Canadians’ emotional, physical, and cognitive wellbeing across distinct phases of the pandemic. In addition, we will work with mental health service leaders, providers and users to co-create supplemental surveys to assess the mental health experiences and needs of three potentially vulnerable groups: frontline health workers, Indigenous peoples, and people living in rural or remote areas. Our results can inform mental health strategies by identifying where, with whom, and what kind of intervention is needed to effectively reduce suicide risk in the population. Support from MSFHR and the BC Ministry of Health will enable us to over-sample British Columbians so that we can understand mental health needs within this province and identify sectors or populations with mental health needs.


Research Team: Our interdisciplinary research team, led by Co-PIs Brianna Turner, Theone Paterson, and Chris Lalonde, includes psychology, social work, and sociology researchers, as well as community knowledge users representing the United Way of the Lower Mainland, the Ontario Association of Social Workers, and the Canadian Mental Health Association.




Keywords: Suicide Prevention, Mental Health, Sleep, Depression, Substance Use, Social Connectedness, Public Health, Survey


End of Award Update – June 2023

Most significant outputs so far

This study examined mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic across adults in three large samples of Canadians (Ns=5000-7000). We learned that older adults reported better mental health and more social connectedness relative to younger adults during the pandemic. Loneliness predicted negative mental health across all ages, while social support buffered the effect of loneliness in older adults.

We also observed slight increases in rates of suicidal ideation (SI) across the three surveys, from 4.1% in the first survey (Fall 2020) to 5.8% in the final survey (Fall/Winter 2021). Odds of reporting SI were higher for survey respondents who were under 35 years old, had pre-existing mental health concerns, had quarantined due to suspected or confirmed COVID-19 exposure, encountered potential exposure to COVID-19 at work, were medically vulnerable toward COVID-19 infection, and were insecurely employed or unemployed. These associations, in turn, were mediated by psychological experiences, particularly depression and thwarted belongingness. We are working to further understand vulnerability to suicidal thinking in our data, and to identify possible policy targets to bolster mental health.


Impacts so far

We have shared our results with the CanCOVID network, at a BC Ministry of Health Knowledge Translation event, and the Canadian Psychological Association and American Association of Suicidology.

We published several open access, peer-reviewed papers, including reports on predictors of suicidal ideation, social connectedness in older adults, and vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic.

We will share additional publications and reports on our study website.

Potential Influence

We are working on developing a set of videos this summer to summarize main study results, which we hope will increase uptake and impact among the general public as well as policy makers and health professionals.


Next Steps

We are currently analyzing the data gathered through two specialized surveys that we conducted, focused on mental health among healthcare workers and people living in rural and remote communities in BC.