Can Kindness Prevent Suicide During the Pandemic?
What can you do to help prevent suicide rates from rising in quarantine?
Posted May 20, 2020
Many have speculated about the potential for the pandemic to cause an increase in suicide rates, citing fear, anxiety, social isolation, and the falling and failing economy as potential triggers. But, so far there are few reported cases of people who have taken their own lives as a result of COVID-19 related issues. So how do we know what to expect?
During the Spanish Flu (1918-1920), there was a significant increase in mental health issues for up to six years following the pandemic, and some evidence that an increase in suicide immediately followed.
In February 1957, the so-called Asian Flu (H2N2 Virus) caused a pandemic that largely targeted Singapore, Hong Kong, and the coastal cities of the United States. In the United States and Singapore, suicide rates declined slightly.
The H3N2 Virus (Pandemic of 1968) began in September 1968 in the United States, which was the hardest hit. There was a very slight uptick in suicide in 1968 (11.05) to 1970 (11.84), although a change this small would not be considered scientifically significant.
War has historically been linked to a decrease in suicide. If you look at the rates of suicide before, during, and after both world wars, you will see that both for countries that participated in the war, and those that did not, rates of suicide decreased during wartime, and after remained lower than they had been before the war.
In 1897 French Sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote a book suggesting that this decrease is caused by an “increase in social integration in society.” Essentially, we pull together to support our country and our troops during wartime and become more of a collectivist culture in terms of working as a group and supporting each other. Some of this emphasis on group versus individual needs may linger after the war ends.
After Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, reports of mental health issues doubled. Six months after the hurricane, a FEMA report detailed evidence that 44% of adult caretakers had clinically significant psychological distress. But, there was no significant increase in suicidal thoughts or suicidality. Many people reported psychological growth such as having a greater appreciation for their loved ones, an increased belief that they could better themselves, and discovering a deeper strength.
A separate study led by Rajeev Ramchand examined 61 suicides that had taken place between January 2015 and April 2016. Time and again, family mentioned that their loved one who had taken his or her own life had bought a gun in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for protection. Among these 61 suicides, 53% involved a gun.
It is possible that these two studies are not in opposition, but complementary. Just like in war, there may be an initial mental health reaction, and a separate and more extreme reaction the longer the desolation continues. Perhaps after six months, people were still clinging to hope and purpose. But, rebuilding a life that resembles normalcy takes longer than six months after a catastrophic event like Katrina. And as time goes on, the toll on mental health continues, and suicides increase as resiliency declines.
So, what does this mean for us in this pandemic?
Well, the good news is that social and national cohesion (togetherness) have been shown to reduce suicide rates. The bad news is that it’s Day 67 and our pre-pandemic political polarization has skyrocketed into public shaming of our neighbors over lack of social distancing, or a fear of the government taking away our civil rights by ordering us to stay at home.
So, how can we help prevent suicide?
- Good guys versus bad guys means a divisive community, and that is more likely to increase feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. There is no enemy in this pandemic. Not your neighbor and not a corrupt and controlling government.
- Remember way back when this started and we were all so grateful for our essential employees and joined together to thank them with TikTok videos and children’s artwork? That time, right there, that was our inoculation against an increase in suicide. If we could remember that we are all in this together and bring that gratefulness back into our lives, that would be huge.
- Stop judging others for how they choose to social distance. Some people can't manage at this moment to value science over fear/anger/denial. Your words won't change their decisions. Focus on keeping you and your family safe and sane instead.
- Check on your loved ones. If you know or suspect someone who has struggled with mental health in the past, call them. Not a text. Give them a personal connection to hold on to.
- Choose kindness. The Fundamental Attribution Bias says that we are more likely to assume that other people’s words and actions are an indication of who they are as a person, rather than what is going on in their life. But, we expect other people to judge but by what is going on in our lives—even though they have no way of knowing. Give other people the benefit of a doubt. Err on the side of kindness. It might help ease the strain and isolation that someone else is going through.
- When it comes to suicide, that whole “guns don’t kill people” line is false. This is a bad time to bring more guns into your home, because we are all on edge. Let’s avoid an itchy trigger finger or accidentally placing a weapon into the hands of someone who is now, or may be in the future, severely depressed.
- Lastly, if you or someone else you know is having thoughts of suicide, seek help. Call 911 in the case of an emergency, or the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.