Are suicides increasing during COVID-19?

It was a frequently used argument during the pandemic, one often used against lockdowns: Suicide rates would increase as a result of social isolation, financial hardships, and more limited access to proper medical care. This fear was repeated by medical professionals and medical health care experts. Even Donald Trump repeated the line at one point, arguing that extensive lockdowns would lead to “thousands” of suicides. So great that he and so many others suddenly care about mental health when they spent years defunding services that would prevent suicide and trying to rip health care away from millions, but that’s a completely different story, so let’s move on, let’s move on.

We’re about four months into some of the various lock-downs and quarantines. The question is obvious: What does the data say? Are suicide rates on the rise?

It seems like its too early to tell. We will only be able to more definitively tell the numbers when the annual suicide numbers come out at the beginning of the year, and even then, it will be extremely difficult to determine the cause of the suicide. However, there is some evidence to indicate that things are not as bad as many of us feared they would be – though that could very, very easily change.

First, let’s look at what data is available and what data has been misleading. At the beginning of the pandemic, a doctor said that his California hospital had seen “a year’s worth of suicide attempts” during a four-week period. That report was utterly debunked: Numbers had barely increased at the hospital in question, and locals reported that they believed the local rate had remained stable in the area.

Apparently, calls to some suicide hotlines have increased. Outreach to suicide prevention text lines has increased as well. However, this may not be a bad thing, as it may be a reflection of people turning to the closest support line to get help. Indeed, if these hotlines are working, the increase in calls may be a good thing. Again, unfortunately, there’s no evidence to say one way or the other.

I couldn’t find any hard data discussing whether or not there was any evidence of suicide rate increases in the United States – if someone has that, please correct me. However, I did find evidence that suicide rates have actually dropped 20% in Germany. This is a preliminary finding, so it is likely too early to draw hard conclusions from it.

There is no question that COVID-19 will cause a massive spike in a wide array of social problems, and suicide would certainly seem to be one of these problems. However, as noted by many articles on the subject, it’s more nuanced than simply saying that “The lockdowns led to more deaths.” The pandemic also ripped apart the economy, threw us into a recession, and maybe a depression. There is clear evidence that down economies lead to higher rates of mental illness and suicide. As such, it is difficult to say that lockdowns lead to suicides. It is much more complex than that.

So, what’s the conclusion? There’s no conclusion. Not yet. Time will tell. But, more importantly, policymakers and the community at large must continue to work to mitigate the economic and social impacts of COVID – particularly on the mentally ill. I’m hoping to be able to work on that one over the summer.

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