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Mental health-related incidents remained stable during pandemic, study shows

"Calls for increased police budgets to respond to expected increases in mental health-related incidents may be unjustified," the study says.
Researchers looked at calls for property and violent crimes.

A new study from Simon Fraser University says while most crime types declined across Canada during COVID-19 restrictions, mental health-related incidents such as suicide remained relatively stable or declined, counter to claims that mental health-related incidents increased.

“We find general stability across police-reported mental-health-related incidents. These findings suggest that the change in social behaviour that reduced opportunities for crime did not have a similar effect on mental-health-related incidents,” said the study published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“It also suggests that calls for increased police budgets to respond to expected increases in mental health-related incidents may be unjustified,” the study said.

Researchers found there were significant decreases in calls to police for suicide or suicide attempts during COVID-19 in Vancouver as well as the Toronto regions of Halton and York. 

In May 2021, the B.C. government reported that from April 2020 to February 2021, there were 534 confirmed deaths by suicide in the province, 12 per cent fewer than the previous 12-month period.

Instead of increasing policing, the study said, a focus on preventative measures could be key to dealing with mental health issues.

“Our findings suggests that police resourcing may not be an important focus during an exceptional event such as a pandemic,” SFU criminology professor Martin Andresen, the study’s co-lead, said. “Rather, we suggest that funding may be better spent on preventative strategies that improve evidence-based predictors of mental health such as housing, basic income and social services.”

He said research indicated pandemic impacts were not distributed evenly, and that they disproportionally impacted women, people experiencing illness, people with previous mental health-related issues, and other marginalized groups.

Andresen and Wilfrid Laurier University assistant professor Tarah Hodgkinson analyzed mental health-related calls from 13 police jurisdictions across Canada from March 2019 to November 2021.

Digging into the data

Researchers looked at calls for property and violent crimes, which they said decreased in almost all jurisdictions. One notable exception was London, Ont., where violent crime increased by 30 per cent during the pandemic. 

Statistics Canada’s crime severity index shows a seven per cent drop in overall national crime for 2020 compared to the previous year; however, the agency’s numbers said violent crime rose five per cent while non-violent crime dropped three per cent after a nine per cent decline in 2020.

The increase in violent crime compared with 2020 was partly attributable to higher rates of sexual assault, harassing and threatening behaviours, and homicide, among others.

Meanwhile, the number of hate-motivated crimes reported by police increased by 27 per cent to 3,360 incidents nationally from 3,360 in 2021.

Other numbers

The team found that Mental Health Act (MHA) apprehensions where people could pose a risk to themselves or others increased in 10 out of 13 police services with the exception of Calgary and Regina.

Ontario Provincial Police, Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, Toronto, and Waterloo Region all recorded statistically significant increases in MHA apprehensions (47, 12, 10, and 13 per cent, respectively). Meanwhile, researchers found an almost complete lack of MHA apprehensions in Vancouver reported to Statistics Canada.

However, calls to police categorized as mental health (other) increased in Toronto, Regina and Ottawa. In particular, researchers found a large-magnitude increase in volume for Toronto. 

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