The impact of COVID-19 on suicide mortality

Key points

  • New data from the CDC shows that the overall suicide rate in the United States has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • However, the number of suicide deaths among young adult men and people of color has increased.
  • Experts say that customized suicide prevention measures are needed to help high-risk groups.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that the number of suicide deaths from 2019 to 2020 has dropped by 3% overall (2% for men and 8% for women). However, the number of suicide deaths among men in the three age groups (10-14, 15-24, and 25-34) has increased. Although the number of suicide deaths among white and Asian men has decreased, the number of deaths among blacks, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Hispanic men has increased.

Although we don’t know what caused the overall reported decline and increase in suicide rates, experts believe that the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role.

Christine Moutier, MD, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), said: “Throughout the pandemic, it is clear that the overall impact on people’s mental health is huge.”

Mental health pandemic

During the pandemic, about 4 out of every 10 adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared to one in ten reported from January to June 2019.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, experiences such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts are more common, especially for youth and young people, caregivers, frontline workers, and black, indigenous and colored people (BIPOC) people. “Said Dr. Mu Jie.

But when it comes to suicide mortality, the situation is complicated.

“In the event of a national tragedy or major world event, the suicide rate is greatly affected,” said Julian Lagoy, a psychiatrist at the Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Center. For example, four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, an analysis of death records showed that the suicide rate did not increase. “This may be because people generally think that’we are all together,'” Dr. Lagoi said.

Christine Moutier, MD

The combination of an individual’s personal risk factors with predisposing factors such as evolving isolated experiences, depression, anxiety, financial stress, suicidal ideation, and access to lethal means may increase the risk of suicide.

— Christine Moutier, MD

Dr. Moutier added that even when suffering is high, suicide is not a foregone conclusion, because the number of people seeking help will increase, and during painful times in the entire community, cohesion and interpersonal relationships will increase, which can reduce the risk of suicide.

She also emphasized that it is important to understand that COVID-19 and related mitigation measures (such as keeping physical distance alone) will not lead to suicide.

She explained: “Individual personal risk factors combined with evolving isolation experiences, depression, anxiety, financial stress, suicidal ideation and access to lethal means may lead to an increased risk of suicide.”

In the long run, we may not be able to understand the full impact of COVID-19 on suicide deaths because it takes time to collect and analyze suicide mortality data. In addition, the epidemic is not over yet. Another consideration is the time lag that often occurs in painful manifestations—this may be months after the traumatic or stressful period ends, Dr. Moutier said.

Custom suicide prevention work

The increase in suicide rates among BIOC populations may be related to the fact that they face more challenges and pressures than whites. “Compared to the general population, BIPOC individuals are also more likely to lose their jobs and are economically disadvantaged due to COVID-19,” said Dr. Lagoi.

He added that it is important to realize that suicide prevention should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. “Everyone is different, and everyone’s suicide prevention strategies and strategies must be unique,” he said. “Although there are common characteristics and risk factors, anyone who attempts to commit suicide or dies from suicide should not be regarded as a number, but as an individual.”

Dr. Moutier agrees that customized suicide prevention efforts are critical, and pointed out that if they are based on and reflect the specific needs and beliefs of the population groups they are trying to reach, they are more likely to be effective.

Julian Lagoy, MD

Despite the common characteristics and risk factors, anyone who attempts to commit suicide or dies from suicide should not be regarded as a number, but as an individual.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

When implementing suicide prevention, it is important to consider all aspects of personal identity, such as race, ethnicity, education, physical and mental health, gender/sexual identity, and religion. “More research is needed to better understand the specific risk factors and prevention strategies that apply to each community,” said Dr. Moutier. “Partnerships should include different representatives of mental health care providers and community stakeholders, including people with life experience and family members.”

As we plan for the post-pandemic period, Dr. Moutier hopes that the new CDC data will encourage initiatives such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) 2025 project to adopt stronger evidence-based suicide prevention practices.

“For example, primary, behavioral care, and emergency departments are key locations where coordinated suicide prevention strategies can have a huge impact on saving lives,” she said. “Basic screening and nursing steps to reduce suicide risk, providing suicide prevention education to providers, and cooperating with major certified professional organizations can increase the acceptance and adoption rate of screening and preventive interventions as standards of care.”

What this means to you

If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to get support and help from trained counsellors. If you or someone you love is in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, please refer to our national helpline database.