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Mental Health, Suicide, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

 Are COVID-19 related suicides the next crisis? 

The United States is a nation currently plagued by many crises. We are facing a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a civil rights crisis all at the same time. The coronavirus pandemic alone had changed almost every facet of life for hundreds of millions of Americans. For nearly two months, most Americans lived under stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Unemployment rates ballooned when the economy first started slowing down in March 2020.

Although many Americans are slowly getting back to their lives pre-coronavirus, the lingering mental and emotional toils of the coronavirus pandemic look like they are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Add in scenes of police brutality and civil unrest being played out on the media on a daily basis, and mental stress and anxiety become front and center.

Given this confluence of stressors, the mental health of many Americans is becoming a major concern as we adapt to absorb the psychological impact of these major events. Data shows that one-third of U.S adults have reported symptoms of clinical anxiety and depression related to this public health crisis.

This increased rate of clinical anxiety and clinical depression can potentially lead to another major crisis if we don’t take clear steps to prevent it: a national suicide crisis. Many mental health professionals are concerned that suicide rates will greatly increase over the next few months related to how Americans are dealing with the devastation of all that is happening.

Suicide rates had actually been on the rise already. In fact, in 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide deaths among those ages 16 to 64 had increased to 35% in less than two decades. But there are new factors related to the pandemic and subsequent crises that could potentially contribute to a further increase in the rate of suicides such as:

  • Increased social isolation and loneliness
  • Skyrocketing rates of unemployment and the economic downturn (recessions are historically associated with increased rates of suicide)
  • Mass grief, especially without funerals and other similar rites
  • Trauma and trauma triggers for communities of color
  • Widening of the net of groups at-risk for mental health conditions
  • Possible neurological "long haul" implications of COVID-19

Suicide is not a new national problem. In fact, it is a public health crisis that has plagued America for quite some time. But now is the time for us to break the stigma around mental health issues and tackle this issue head-on in a methodical, proactive way. It is important that we, individually and collectively, ring the alarm regarding the possibilities of COVID-19 related suicide and take a public health approach to prevent this potential problem. To that end, we would like to educate the public on important signs to look for in loved ones who may have suicidal feelings and how to offer effective support.

Here are important signs to look for in a loved one who might be contemplating suicide:

  • Extreme withdrawal from all family and friends
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Stating that life is not worth living
  • Starting to get possessions and final paperwork in order
  • Erratic behaviors, mood swings, increased agitation/aggression/irritability
  • Severe changes in sleep (increased sleep or decreased sleep) and appetite (increased appetite or decreased appetite)

Here’s what that effective support looks like:

  • If someone states that they are suicidal take them seriously. Let them know that you are there for them and help them create a safety plan which would include calling 911 and going to the emergency room if they felt like they were at imminent risk of harm to themselves or others.
  • Ask your friend or loved one to talk about what their emotional pain feels like. Don’t try to derive explanations for their pain or give suggestions on how to cope with the pain. Empathic listening can be extremely helpful.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help them feel better. Offer to run an errand on their behalf, drop off a meal, or otherwise ease that person’s load.
  • Help the person access therapy — through their insurance plan, through their employee assistance plan (EAP) at work, through their primary care physician’s office, or through their church (e.g. Christian counseling, spiritual counseling).

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or theCrisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.