CALGARY -- As the Bell Let’s Talk national awareness campaign and fundraiser draws attention to mental health, Calgary social workers and researchers say the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on mental health.

At the same time, there has been a recent increase in calls by those seeking support.

Calgary’s Distress Centre experienced  a 103 per cent increase in suicide-related contacts in December 2020 compared to December 2019.

Data the organization collected from November 2020 shows that nearly 25 per cent of the more than 4,400 calls, online messages and texts the organization fielded were suicide-related, a 73 per cent increase in suicide calls compared to the same period in 2019.

As well, of a list of 10 issues, suicide was the number five issue in crisis contacts last month.

“The feeling of not being able to have connection is impacting people as well,” said Mike Velthuis Kroeze, crisis program manager for the Distress Centre.

More people seeking help

While calls have spiked, in fact Alberta’s overall suicide death rate is on a downward trend. Data obtained from Alberta Justice, indicates the number of people who died of suicide in 2020 is 490, down from 601 recorded in 2019.

Kroeze in encouraged that more people are seeking help.

“Have compassion for yourself. This pandemic impacts every single person it doesn’t matter if you are still able to go to work or not, it impacts us all.”

One of the groups hardest-hit by the pandemic were women having children.

Researchers from the University of Calgary found concerning rates of anxiety and depression in women who were pregnant or gave birth in 2020.

“Rates that are about three to four times what we would normally expect in pregnancy in Canadian women,” said the study’s co-lead Catherine Lebel, associate professor of radiology.

Of the 1,987 women surveyed in April 2020, it found 37 per cent reporting clinically relevant symptoms of depression and 57 per cent for anxiety.

The participants reported concern about COVID-19 threatening the life of the mother and baby, as well as concerns about social isolation.

“Often it’s dismissed as temporary or related to hormones or something like that but these are real symptoms that are compromising people’s ability to deal with life and can have potentially long lasting consequences.”

Lebel says this is an issue for society to figure out how we can better support pregnant women.

“We want to make sure that the women are supported and that ultimately their children are developing appropriately.”

Mount Royal University has implemented a suicide prevention strategic framework to address warning signs and indicators of suicide so that those in distress can access support.

It also will provide guidance for responding to a crisis in progress, and follow up care supports.

“(We want to provide) a welcoming campus environment where there’s no wrong door. If somebody reaches out for help we will get them to the place,” said Rachelle McGrath, director of Wellness Services at MRU.

McGrath adds the centre has increased virtual sessions and online trainings in the 2020/2021 academic year.

Mental health experts say if you - or anyone you know - is struggling, lifesaving help is available.

The Distress Centre is available 24/7 at 403-266-4357. Teens can text 587-333-2724.