Why COVID-19 May Be Increasing the Risk of Suicide

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some major shifts in the way society functions. And many of these shifts may increase the risk of suicide in some individuals.

Current studies show that many Americans are experiencing increased distress right now from the pandemic. A McKinsey national consumer survey conducted from March 27 - 29, 2020, found that 63% of Americans felt anxious, depressed, or a combination of both. And 80% of Americans reported feeling moderate or high distress. Additionally, 1 in 4 Americans reported binge drinking within the last week.

There are several factors related to the pandemic that may place some individuals at an especially high risk of suicide.

Social Isolation

While social distancing is an important part of managing the spread of COVID-19, it can take a serious toll on some individuals’ mental health. And for those who have thoughts about killing themselves, fewer social interactions may greatly increase the risk of suicidal behavior.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that social isolation and loneliness were key factors contributing to suicidal thoughts and behavior. 

Thus, individuals who live alone may be at an especially high risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior when they’re social distancing or quarantined. In addition, anyone else who experiences greater amounts of loneliness during the pandemic may be at a higher risk as well.

Financial Distress

Shelter-in-place rules have caused many people to lose their jobs. These individuals are likely struggling right now to get unemployment or to find alternative sources of income. Their financial distress may place them at a higher risk of suicide. 

Additionally, there are concerns that a recession could be on the horizon. Many individuals have already lost money in the stock market, and many businesses may fail to recover even when shelter-in-place orders are lifted. 

Historically, economic downturns are associated with higher suicide rates. A 2015 study found that suicide rates tended to increase during recessions.

Little Access to Community Support

Many individuals rely on collective support from the community to function at their best. But nearly all community activities and programs have been canceled. 

In addition, most religious services have canceled all in-person events. For many people, attending religious services is key to maintaining good mental health. 

A 2016 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that weekly attendance at a religious service was associated with a fivefold lower suicide rate. Without access to church services and community activities, people may feel more isolated than ever, which may greatly increase their risk of suicide.

Barriers to Treatment

Many mental health treatment centers are not seeing patients in person during the pandemic. And while some treatment providers have shifted to online and phone treatment, others may not be offering services at all.

Support groups, outpatient centers, and many day programs have suspended their services during the pandemic. This includes groups for substance abuse treatment as well, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

It may also be more difficult for individuals to see their physicians or psychiatrists. This may make it difficult to get prescriptions refilled.

Media Coverage

Constant news coverage about the pandemic may have a negative toll on an individual’s well-being. Reports about “death tolls” and “community spread” can cause an immediate spike in anxiety. 

The distressing news may increase the severity of preexisting mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. It may also increase substance use.

Health Care Worker Risks

Studies have found physicians are at a high risk of suicide in general—especially female physicians. Their job-related stress may increase their risk for a variety of mental health issues.

In fact, medical professionals may be at an especially high risk of suicide during the pandemic. A lack of personal protective equipment, seeing colleagues get sick, and the fear of contracting the virus are just a few factors that can take a serious toll on well-being.

But it’s not just physicians who feel the strain. A study on healthcare workers in Wuhan, China found that nurses and other frontline workers were more likely to experience psychological distress, including anxiety and depression, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to Check on Loved Ones

If you’re concerned about a friend or family member, reach out to them. Ask them how they’re doing. Be sure to acknowledge what a stressful time this is, and encourage them to share how they're handling the emotions caused by the current situation.

If you suspect they’re having thoughts of suicide, don’t hesitate to ask. Be direct with your questions by asking something like, “Have you had any thoughts about hurting yourself?” or “Have you thought about ending your life?”

If there’s an imminent risk of suicide, call 911 or your local police department. Imminent risk may mean the individual has the intention of following through with a plan or has already engaged in suicidal behavior, such as taking pills.

If the danger isn’t imminent, encourage the person to get help from a mental health professional. Make it clear that they deserve to feel better and you’re willing to guide them towards getting the help they need.

If you have questions about how to proceed or what to do, contact a suicide prevention or crisis line to talk about the situation.

If you’re concerned about a loved one’s well-being, it’s important to also take care of yourself. You might see a therapist on your own or you might reach out to someone you trust to help you work through the emotions you’re dealing with.

Resources

If you are having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7 for anyone experiencing emotional distress. 

You can also contact the crisis text line. Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor via text message. Anyone in the US and Canada can get free support 24/7.

Calling your primary care physician or your local emergency room is always an option.

A Word From Verywell

It’s important to seek professional help if you’re having thoughts of killing yourself. And if you suspect a loved one may be suicidal, it’s important to support their efforts in getting help. Talk therapy, medication, or a combination of services have been shown to help. Hospitalization may be necessary in an acute crisis.

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