Will COVID-19 trigger a spike in deaths by suicide?
Whether the COVID-19 pandemic will result in a bump in suicide rates is unclear and will remain so for quite a while, according to David Gunnell, MD, PhD, a suicidologist and professor of epidemiology at the University of Bristol (England).
In the United Kingdom, investigation of a suspicious death typically takes more than 6 months before an official declaration of suicide is recorded by the medical examiner. The lag time is even longer in the United States: The latest national suicide rate data are for 2018 because state-by-state reporting practices vary widely, he noted at a National Press Foundation briefing on COVID-19 and mental health.
Although suicide is consistently the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, it’s important to put it in perspective, he added. In 2018, there were an average of 4,000 deaths by suicide per month nationally, whereas in March and April of 2020, there were 28,400 deaths per month attributable to COVID-19.
A classic study of the Spanish influenza pandemic in the United States during 1918-1919 concluded that there was “a slight upturn” in the rate of suicide in the months following the pandemic’s peak. More recently, a study of the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic in Hong Kong found roughly a 30% increase in the rate of suicide among the elderly during that time frame, Dr. Gunnell noted.
“What limited evidence there is provides an indication of a small rise in suicides, but the number of deaths is far outweighed by the number of deaths associated with these big pandemics,” according to the epidemiologist.
Pandemics aside, there is far more compelling evidence that periods of economic recession are associated with an increase in the suicide rate, he added.
Another speaker, Holly C. Wilcox, PhD, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, commented: “It’s not surprising that, during times of disaster the suicide rates decrease a bit. It could be because of people coming toghether. It could be one silver lining of COVID-19. But if there’s prolonged stress economically and socially and we can’t work towards reducing stress for people, we could see an increase. I don’t know if we will.”
In a recent article, Dr. Gunnell and coauthors offered a series of recommendations aimed at blunting the mental health consequences of COVID-19 and the related economic fallout (Lancet Psychiatry. 2020 Apr 21. doi: 10.1016/S2215-036630171-1).
The authors highlighted the need for interventions aimed at defusing the adverse impact of self-isolation, social distancing, fear, an anticipated rise in alcohol misuse, joblessness, interrupted education, bereavement, and complicated grief. Governments can blunt the well-established effect of financial distress as a risk factor for suicide by providing safety nets in the form of supports for housing, food, and unemployment benefits. And it will be important that those mental health services that develop expertise in performing psychiatric assessments and interventions remotely via telemedicine share their insights, Dr. Gunnell said.