The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission is seeing exponential growth during the pandemic in the number of complaints filed on the basis of mental disability.
In the last fiscal year, 115 complaints were filed based on mental disability. There were 60 the previous year, said Claire Roussel-Sullivan, the chair of the commission.
And so far this year, the commission has already seen more complaints than it did in the year leading into the pandemic. That’s 67 complaints in less than two months — more than all of 2019-2020.
“So that’s significantly higher than previous years,” said Roussel-Sullivan.
She said “mental disability” can include everything from mental disorders to depression and anxiety.
And the mental health fallout from the pandemic may be felt for years to come, says the executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association of New Brunswick.
Christa Baldwin said the number of New Brunswickers reaching out for help soared during the pandemic. She predicts things will only get worse as society emerges from “survival mode.”
She said mental health will become an “echo pandemic” of COVID-19.
“This is a real crisis point now for mental health,” said Baldwin.
Before the pandemic, the New Brunswick association was providing services to about 86,000 residents. Baldwin said that jumped to 204,000 because of COVID-19.
Roughly 70 per cent of the visits to the group’s website during the pandemic were new visitors, said Baldwin.
“So when we talk about mental health demand, that’s significant.”
Baldwin said it’s been “all hands on deck” at the association during the pandemic.
Study finds stable suicide rate
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Baldwin said she isn’t surprised by most pandemic-related statistics — except the suicide rate.
Research done by the Canadian Mental Health Association, in collaboration with the University of British Columbia, reveals that the suicide rate has remained stable through the pandemic, but the number of people thinking about suicide has increased.
It went from about two per cent of people surveyed prior to the pandemic “to six per cent to 10 per cent during different parts of the pandemic,” said Baldwin.
The survey asked 3,027 people in Canada specifically about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their mental health.
Although the study doesn’t show an increase in the number of suicides, Baldwin said an increase in the number of people thinking about it is “pretty concerning.”
Thirty-eight per cent of those surveyed said their mental health has declined because of COVID-19.
And the figures are worse for those who were already struggling before the pandemic. That group was twice as likely to say their mental health has declined because of COVID-19, and four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or tried to harm themselves, the survey suggests.
‘Chronic under funding’
“In some ways, the history we have been living has brought us to this situation,” said Baldwin.
“The chronic under funding of mental health in this province by every government that we’ve had hasn’t allowed us to have the right or appropriate resources in place to help people with their mental health needs.”
Baldwin said governments have to invest more in proactive mental health care.
“We’ve recognized that we cannot treat our way out of this mental health crisis that we’re finding ourselves in now. We need to be upstream and have the preventative lens and earlier intervention to help people before they reach the crisis point.”
She would like to see mental health receive the same amount of funding as physical health, but there is a long way to go to close that gap.
“Mental health is a universal human right equal to physical health,” Baldwin said. “So all people have a right to accessible and appropriate mental health services the way they do for physical health.
“So if someone is reaching out because they have a broken leg, you go to the hospital, you get a cast, you have appropriate services. You’re not sent away, come back in two weeks for a cast. So that’s where we need to land with mental health.”
More problems or less stigma?
In the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission’s most recent annual report, mental disabilities are cited four times more than they were 20 years ago.
And for the first time ever, mental disabilities are cited more often than physical disabilities.
Roussel-Sullivan said it’s difficult to say whether there are more mental health issues or whether people just feel more comfortable talking about them.
“We know, based on our data, that more people are putting in complaints, but we can’t say whether there are more people in the province getting diagnosed with some type of mental illness,” she said.