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Will COVID-19 Make the Suicide Crisis Worse?

Mass unemployment may bring about historically high suicide rates.

In these early days of the coronavirus emergency, Americans have been panic buying not only toilet paper but firearms. The U.S. suicide rate has already increased every year for the past two decades. Various observers have pointed to the boom in gun sales as a foreboding sign that it will go higher still.

However, if this uptick in gun sales is like others we have seen in the past, the vast majority of people purchasing firearms now are already firearm owners. The percentage of U.S. households that own guns (43%) has not changed much over the past 30 years. In fact, it has gone down a bit. Chances are that most of the current gun buyers are simply adding to their existing arsenals.

People (like me) who are concerned about the number of people who die by suicide each year in the United States are right to be concerned about firearm access. Safely storing firearms, and especially having them safeguarded by a responsible friend or relative during a critical period, can save lives. Many people who attempt suicide make the decision to die just minutes before. Access to a gun can turn a momentary impulse into a fatal outcome.

But I fear that factors other than firearm ownership will drive an increase in the 2020 and 2021 suicide rates. We are already seeing a vast increase in unemployment claims just in the first weeks of the coronavirus emergency. As the economy slows and then grinds to a halt, some economists have forecast levels of unemployment comparable to the Great Depression, when 1 in 4 Americans were out of work.

The U.S. suicide rate was 12.1 per 100,000 from 1920 to 1928 during the Roaring Twenties. After the stock market crash of 1929, the suicide rate skyrocketed 50% to 18.1 per 100,000. The suicide rate over the next decade of economic depression (1930-1940) stayed at a terribly high 15.4 per 100,000, until the national emergency of World War II, when it declined significantly.

Unemployment is a well-established risk factor for suicide. In fact, 1 in 3 people who die by suicide are unemployed at the time of their deaths. For every one-point increase in the unemployment rate, the suicide rate tends to increase .78 points. One of the silent drivers of our current suicide crisis is the high percentage of working-age men not participating in the labor force.

In 2018, the U.S. suicide rate was already at 14.8 per 100,000—dangerously close to those Great Depression rates. The average rate between 2008 and 2018 was about 13.1 per 100,000. If the U.S. rate jumps in the same manner it did after the 1929 stock market crash, then the national suicide rate could rise to 16.6 per 100,000. In other words, 2021 could see more than 54,000 deaths by suicide (versus about 48,000 in 2018). The 6,000 excess deaths—which I fervently hope do not occur—would be additional victims of the coronavirus emergency and its economic impact.

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