The Covid-19 pandemic and suicide. Data from 21 high- and upper-middle-income nations suggests lower or unchanged rates
Six months ago, my colleagues and I became the first group to publish a rigorous analysis of suicide deaths during a covid-19 shelter-in-place. We found that in Massachusetts, which had one of the longest shelter-in-place periods of any jurisdiction in the United States, suicide rates had not deviated from pre-pandemic projections.
We then collaborated with a group of scientists from around the world, adding data from Louisiana to the mix as well. The data from this international collaborative were published last week in Lancet Psychiatry. The findings were again reassuring. In no nation were suicides increased during the early pandemic period, in data covering the beginning of the pandemic through the end of July 2020. In a dozen nations, suicide rates went down. Moreover, in the time since this manuscript was accepted, data from the United States as a whole have become available, with reliable data through the end of August 2020. My team assessed those numbers and found that US suicides also were statistically lowerthan pre-pandemic trends would have predicted, amounting to around a 10 percent decrease, or approximately 2,400 fewer suicide deaths in the US than predicted from March through the end of August.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has taken a mental health toll. The extent of that is difficult to measure, though, especially given how differently people are using mental health resources and the unique stressors brought about by the pandemic. For some, the sudden move to telehealth has made it easier for people to get help, meaning that the bar for those seeking psychiatric treatment may be lower. But for others, telehealth is not a viable option; in-person care is harder than ever to obtain. Additionally, the stressors of the pandemic have mounted in ways that are difficult for public health researchers to capture. That's why my collaborators and I chose to assess suicide deaths in particular. On one hand, suicide deaths represent a relatively uncommon though especially tragic outcome among those with mental health struggles. On the other, suicide deaths are relatively objective and "easier" to track; we have decades of statistics, making comparisons and trends easier to track. In addition, unlike many medical deaths, suicide deaths are all investigated. In most cases, the determination of a suicide death is relatively straightforward for medical examiners. In fact, suicide deaths often have among the longest reporting lags of any of the major causes of death. But they're also seen as being among the most accurate and reliable.