Opioid & mental health deaths skyrocket

Canadians used to be among the happiest people in the world. That’s changing.

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns have wreaked havoc on Canadians suffering from mental illness, opioid addiction and other substance abuse problems, says a new study released today by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) which confirms anecdotal reports warning that the pandemic’s health consequences extend well beyond the novel coronavirus itself.

Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing and shutdowns have kept the Canadian caseload relatively low compared to other jurisdictions globally. But the overall health of the population has deteriorated over the last eight months, with more people turning to drugs, alcohol, tobacco and screen time over physical exercise to cope with the stress.

A surge in opioid deaths

In B.C., there were more than 100 “illicit drug toxicity” deaths per month for six consecutive months from March to August 2020, and more than 175 such deaths each month in May, June and July, according to data compiled by PHAC.

B.C.’s highest monthly opioid death toll, in June 2020, was 181, up from 76 in June 2019. First Nations people account for a disproportionate number of these deaths — they were nearly six times more likely to die from an overdose than other B.C. residents.

In July, B.C. paramedics responded to a record high number of overdose calls — a 75 per cent spike in calls compared to the same month last year. Paramedics in B.C. also responded that month to an average of 87 overdose calls a day, or 2,706 calls in total.

Last week, the B.C. Coroners Service said 1,202 people have died of fatal overdoses so far this year, compared to just 983 deaths in all of 2019. The death toll in B.C. in September was more than double the 60 fatalities recorded in the same month last year.

Preliminary data from Ontario also show that the number of confirmed and probable deaths from opioid-related causes has increased by almost 50 per cent, from 148 deaths in January to 220 deaths in May.

We’re drinking and smoking more, moving less

Meanwhile, many Canadians have increased their use of alcohol, cannabis and tobacco during this pandemic.

By early summer, based on surveys by Statistics Canada, close to one in five Canadians (19 per cent) said their consumption of alcohol had increased, cannabis use jumped 8.3 per cent and tobacco smoking rates were up by 3.9 per cent over pre-pandemic levels.

CBC North has documented a surge in alcohol and substance abuse in Canada’s northern territories thanks in part to more bootlegging and access to cash through the Canadian emergency relief benefit (CERB) and other relief supports.

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