Did suicide rates rise during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Suicides during COVID pandemic
Photo via Sander van der Wel/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

People from all walks of life have struggled with mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they did not personally become sick from the virus. Even before the pandemic, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It stands to reason that suicides would spike during times of crisis, sparking concerns over the rate of suicide during the worst months of COVID-19.

Pandemics exacerbate several factors that may lead to an increase in suicides. These include economic stress and financial hardships, social distancing and isolation from support networks, barriers to mental health treatment, and continuous pandemic media coverage that may intensify existing feelings of fear and anxiety.

Despite concerns, it appears that there were no significant spikes in overall suicides during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, based on preliminary data and reports. A report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did find, however, that mental health-related emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts increased 31% among adolescents aged 12–17 years in 2020 compared to 2019.

According to preliminary CDC data published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, suicides actually decreased 5.6% to 44,834 in 2020—down from 47,511 in 2019. Overall deaths jumped 17.7% in the U.S. last year, but deaths by suicide decreased for the third consecutive year in a row.

The drop to fewer than 45,000 suicides in a single year is the widest margin in at least four decades. Preliminary numbers will likely change as death certificates continue to be processed, however.

Some experts believe the answer is as simple as human nature. During a crisis, people often come together and find support in one another.

“One explanation is that during times of national or community level crisis—natural disasters, war, other crises—there is a known population level response that undergoes phases of change in the psychological response,” Dr. Christine Yu Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Healthline.

“Community cohesion and sense of belonging is a very potent protective factor against suicide risk, along with other experiences like connecting to support and mental health service,” she said.

The pandemic may also have been a sort of “wake-up call” for people who realized the need to reprioritize their lives.

Dr. Leela R. Magavi, regional medical director for Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California, told Healthline that her patients said that the past year helped them better conceptualize “what they need versus what they want.”

“People have shared that simple things, when observed and felt comprehensively, can add significant value and happiness to their day-to-day life,” Magavi said.

“People are understanding the value of mindfulness,” she continued. “Many people are taking walks and spending time in nature. Once individuals identify how life is more simple and beautiful with mindfulness and periods of silence and meditation, it can create a pattern of healthy behavior, thanks to neuroplasticity and rewiring of the brain.”

Magavi noted that she is hopeful some of these changes prioritizing “moment over ritual” will stick around after the pandemic ends.

It’s too soon to let our collective guard down

Despite the heartening numbers, the relationship between suicides and pandemics is complicated, and history tells us we may not be in the clear just yet.

From what experts know based on studies of previous epidemics, a short-term decrease in suicide could lead to a surge further down the road, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Studies of natural disasters likewise suggest short-term reductions in suicide in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but these numbers often increase later. 

This phenomenon is referred to as the “honeymoon period” or “pulling together,” in which the support in the wake of a crisis can be attributed to increased social connections and community cohesion. When that network starts to dissipate with a return to normalcy, however, many people struggling with mental health may have a hard time coping.

Late stages of other pandemics have been associated with spikes in suicide rates. These include the flu pandemic of 1918-19, the Ebola epidemic in Africa, and an increase in elderly suicides in Hong Kong during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Suicides in Japan were already starting to exceed historical trends by July 2020, following lower than average rates in the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the U.S., another concerning trend has been noted. Gun sales saw a 41% increase in March 2020 and a more than 50% increase in August and October 2020, compared to rates in 2019. Out of all suicides that occur in the U.S., 51% are carried out by firearm.

Sources: John Hopkins, Healthline, JAMA, CDC

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