Another Fatality Rate Looms Alongside Deaths from COVID-19: Suicides
Suicide rates were already rising dramatically. Is the coronavirus pandemic making them even worse?
As if the threat of contracting COVID-19 weren’t enough, the coronavirus pandemic is also exacerbating an existing mental health crisis. Results from surveys conducted before and after the virus reached the U.S. suggest that there has been a three-fold increase in depression symptoms, according to the Boston University School of Public Health. In separate surveys, the Centers for Disease Control found “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19,” including substance use and suicidal ideation.
“Post-COVID-19 plans should account for the probable increase in mental illness to come, particularly among at-risk populations,” the Boston University report advises. The CDC report makes a similar recommendation, also in the dry language of journal articles. But this is a catastrophe that will have its own parallel fatality rate, though much harder to measure.
When the pandemic arrived, the U.S. was already in the midst of a long suicide epidemic that was only beginning to gain national awareness. In December 2019, The New York Times reported that, according to the CDC,
the rate of suicide among those aged 10 to 24 increased dramatically — by 56 percent — between 2007 and 2017, making suicide the second leading cause of death in this age group, following accidents like car crashes.
Along with suicides, since 2011, there’s been nearly a 400 percent increase nationally in suicide attempts by self-poisoning among young people. “Suicide attempts by the young have quadrupled over six years, and that is likely an undercount,” said Henry A. Spiller, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center, who called the trend “devastating.” “These are just the ones that show up in the E.R.”
But that’s only part of the story. While suicides among teens seems especially tragic and garner the most media attention, the larger story is that rates are skyrocketing in many groups. This was illustrated starkly in a series of reports released in July by the Ohio-focused Mental Health & Addiction Advocacy Coalition (MHAC).
For example, according to the MHAC reports, “Deaths by suicide in children ages 14 and under, while infrequent, increased by the highest percentage (93.33%) during [2007-2017], followed by Ohioans ages 60 and older (80.88%). … Females ages 45-54 had the highest suicide rate for women, while the 65 and older age range had the highest suicide rate for men.”
Nationally, the suicide rate among men is about four times higher than among women. But the increase in the suicide rate for women between 1999 and 2017 has been much higher—53%, compared to 26% for men—according to a National Center for Health Statistics report cited by MHAC.
Although suicide rates among white people remain much higher than among people of color, in Ohio and elsewhere, the gap is narrowing, at least among some age groups. According to reporting from K12insight.com: “While African-American males aged 13-19 years old saw a 60 percent increase in suicides between 2000 and 2017, suicides among African-American females of the same age grew by a devastating 182 percent during this period.”
Boston University’s warning about “at-risk populations” included the economically disadvantaged (“Having lower income and less wealth are associated with greater burden of mental illness.”). A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry asserted that the 2008 financial crisis “had a statistically significant effect on suicide cases in the United States.” In April 2020, Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy warned: “Even if employment rates fully recover after the summer, we project that poverty rates will increase to 15.4 percent, comparable to levels observed during the Great Recession.” (This prediction did not take into account federal aid programs.)
It’s too early to measure the impact of the new school year on families’ income and stress levels, but there isn’t time to wait to find out. Long before the pandemic, researchers had noted that thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts among teens rose during the school year. “Peaks were highest in fall and spring,” one expert told NBC News in 2018. “October accounted for nearly twice as many [hospital visits] as reported in July.” The pandemic is almost certain to accelerate another crisis to which we’d also been too slow to respond. Every elected and appointed official, medical professional, community service provider — indeed, everyone — should make suicide prevention a top priority. Every death prevented is a family spared a trauma from which it will never fully recover, and a community saved from a loss it cannot replace.
If You Are Experiencing Suicidal Thoughts …
Go to the nearest emergency room, or call 911 or the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (available 24 hours a day, seven days a week). You also can text “HELLO” to 741741.
- SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline provides 24/7, 365-day-a-year crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
- Familiarize yourself with #BeThe1To’s five action steps to take when someone you know may be suicidal.
- Find suicide prevention information, FAQs, and fact sheets from the National Institute of Mental Health.