Note: This is a difficult topic for many. If this blog raises any issues for you, here is a list of resources that may be able to help.
As someone who has been depressed, and knows what it’s like to consider taking your own life, the topic of suicide is one that I am naturally very interested in. It’s also a notoriously complex issue, with suicide influenced by a huge number of societal issues. Everything from house prices to pesticide sales has been shown to influence the rate at which people kill themselves, which is a pretty startling finding when you think about it.
Which brings us to the coronavirus. Given the enormous impact that COVID-19 has had on our lives, people have been arguing across the world that suicides will be on the rise in these times. Many have specifically tied the idea of government lockdowns to suicides, saying that we must protect mental health. On the flipside of that argument, some are worried that catching the virus itself might cause people who get it to deteriorate, which adds yet another layer to this debate.
So is COVID-19 causing suicides? As with many things, the answer is more complex than the headlines suggest.
The basic idea of COVID-19 causing suicides is simple: we know that it is probably negatively impacting people’s mental health. Whether that’s because of the massive financial crash that is happening around us, or simply because getting a nasty disease can be bad for your brain, the coronavirus is almost certainly linked to a general decline in our self-reported wellbeing.
Therefore, goes the logic, the coronavirus must be increasing rates of suicide. But it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.
The first point to note is that, contrary to popular belief, suicide is more complex than a simple link to mental health. While depression and other disorders are obviously related, about 40% of people who die from suicide do not have a diagnosed mental health issue.
On top of this, there is plenty of evidence that, at a population level, we can impact suicide rates by doing things that aren’t at all related to mental health. You can reduce the total number of suicides by putting up fences on famous bridges, for example. Gun control is another method of reducing suicides — not just suicides by firearm, but total suicides as well. People who were going to die by suicide using a gun or bridge, if you remove their ability to do so, don’t go on to fall prey to suicide in another manner.
Which brings us back to the initial point: suicide is complex. So while it may be true that COVID-19 is making the world a darker place, whether this is tied to an increased number of suicides is a much harder question to answer.
For example, it may be true that depression rates are on the rise, but it’s also likely that the access to means of suicide is, generally, a bit lower. If that’s the case, then we may see more depressed people, but fewer able to actually die from suicide in the population. This may seem a bit optimistic, but it’s neither impossible nor even that unlikely, given what we know about how suicide works.
There’s also another wrinkle in the puzzle — suicide statistics are, by their nature, retrospective. We don’t actually know whether people have definitively died from suicide until some time after their death. This is because most suicides are investigated quite extensively, and so it can be months or even years until the official figures come out for the rate of suicide in a population.
This shouldn’t be taken as an argument the other way — it’s not that the coronavirus ISN’T causing suicide. It’s just that we don’t really know if it is, and we probably won’t know for quite a while. Despite the many news articles proclaiming the idea as fact, it’s actually a bit more complex than the news has made it seem.
Usually, I’d try to end with a fairly definitive response, but unfortunately I really don’t have one for you. Yes, the coronavirus pandemic isn’t great for our mental health, and as someone who suffers from mental health issues I can guarantee that I understand that quite well. However, what impact this has on suicide rates, and how it will play out long term is, at this point, anyone’s guess.
On top of this, we really don’t know what impact lockdowns and other government interventions will have on suicide rates. Right-wing political pundits may have decreed that lockdowns are going to kill us all through self-harm, but the reality is that we really don’t know whether that is true at all. You could argue that lockdowns are actually saving lives that would be lost to suicide, because one thing we are fairly sure of is that getting COVID-19 is pretty bad for your mental health.
As with a lot of coronavirus impacts, it’s incredibly hard to unpick cause and effect. Lockdowns may be associated with mental health issues, but they might also reduce the impact of the virus itself, offsetting the problems. We just don’t know yet.
COVID-19 might cause an increase in suicide rates, but we it’ll be quite a while until we know for sure. We probably won’t know for some time.
We can only wait and see what the future holds.