Experts warn of pandemic's deepening impact on mental health as caseloads rise

As at least one provincial leader weighs the tough question of whether to order more lockdowns over the holidays to cope with a swelling second wave of the pandemic, one business organization is warning that the stress could be pushing many business owners beyond the brink.

Business group warns that many operations face bankruptcy because there's 'no fat left to trim'

Ontario Premier Doug Ford: 'We're seeing ... addictions rise right now. We're seeing suicides rise.' (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

As at least one provincial leader weighs the tough question of whether to order more lockdowns over the holidays to cope with a swelling second wave of the pandemic, a business organization is warning that the stress could be pushing many business owners beyond the brink.

Quebec Premier François Legault announced tighter lockdown measures earlier this week. After weeks of calls from medical professionals for more stringent measures, the Alberta government ordered a four-week lockdown earlier this month.

Today, Ontario Premier Doug Ford told a news conference several times  that "everything is on the table" as the province struggles to contain its rising local caseloads, and hinted that the Greater Toronto and Hamilton regions could be in line for new restrictions.

At the same time, Ford said he's worried about the impact new restrictions might have on individuals' mental health.

"We're seeing, you know, addictions rise right now. We're seeing suicides rise," Ford told a press conference today. "So we have to measure everything. It's not always health. Health is number one. That's the number one priority. Without health, we don't have our economy."

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) estimates that between 55,000 and 218,000 small and medium-sized businesses are at risk of closing due to the pandemic. Dan Kelly, CFIB's president and CEO, said his organization has fielded roughly 65,000 calls from panicked businesspeople who are watching their savings evaporate.

Tears and trauma

"Many of the business owners are calling in tears, seeing their businesses vanish in their hands. But a dozen of them have contemplated suicide, taking their own lives," he said recently.

"We've had to provide our own counsellors at CFIB, with some support to help them provide advice and counsel in dealing with the trauma they are facing every day after listening to hundreds and hundreds of calls from business owners that are absolutely desperate."

As some businesses prepare to close for a second time, said Kelly, many are doing so in the knowledge that the next inevitable step is bankruptcy.

"There's no reserve or no fat left to trim in businesses at this stage," he said. "So the degree of desperation that we're hearing right now is quite incredible as businesses now look at a whole winter of no sales."

A recent study conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) says 40 per cent of Canadians report their mental health has deteriorated since March — a figure that rises to 61 per cent among the unemployed.

"So many of the things that perhaps we took for granted before that contribute to our mental health have disappeared. So the social connection with family and friends, the connections we experience through work, a reliable income, things like this," said CMHA national CEO Margaret Eaton.

Eaton said she fears that many people are so deep in despair now that they can't see past it.

"We know that Crisis Services Canada, which runs the Canadian Suicide Prevention Service, has seen a 200 per cent increase in demand," she said. "So the calls are coming in fast and furious."

MPs call for new suicide hotline

On Dec. 11, members of Parliament unanimously passed a motion tabled by MP Todd Doherty calling on the government to immediately launch an easy-to-remember three digit national suicide hotline number — 988 — to make it simpler for people in crisis to reach out for help. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will hold public consultations on the hotline proposal in the new year.

A 988 national suicide hotline is expected to roll out in the United States in 2022.

Eaton said that while the recent arrival of the first COVID-19 vaccines in Canada is cause for optimism, the pandemic's impacts on mental health will outlast the crisis itself. She cited the 2016 wildfire that consumed much of Fort McMurray, Alta. — an event that caused stress and anxiety among residents for more than a year afterward.

"After the fires had ended and people had gone back home, that wasn't the end of the mental health issues. People were calling our local CMHA up to 18 months after the originating incident," she said.

"We need to be thinking not just about the moment where people are already struggling, but ... the longer term. And I think there's much that governments can do in terms of providing further support."

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) crisisservicescanada.ca

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

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