Stop Suicide: Spot Emotionally Deadly Symptoms of COVID-19
How to prevent the virus from killing people who are not infected.
Posted Aug 01, 2020
Suicide is a public health emergency. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 800,000 lose their lives as a result of suicide each year, which amounts to one person every 40 seconds.[i] The WHO describes suicide as a global phenomenon that may occur throughout the lifespan. The risk of suicide may be heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic and afterward, as many people are in danger of succumbing to COVID-19—without ever contracting the virus.
We recognize instinctively that the multiple stressors and risk factors, both physically and psychologically as a result of COVID-19-related issues can exacerbate existing stress, and create new sources of anxiety. Now, more than ever, we should be on the lookout for red flags of distress in our family, our friends and colleagues, and ourselves. Research has identified some specific risk factors.
Isabella Aquila et al. in "The Role of the COVID-19 Pandemic as a Risk Factor for Suicide” (2020) discuss, in part, exactly that.[ii] While not drawing definitive conclusions due to the lack of adequate study to date, they suggest that quarantine and mandatory restrictions might impact suicides and related attempts in people already at risk, as well as others. Accordingly, they recognize the need to evaluate novel intervention strategies to prevent suicides in response to the current pandemic, the duration of which remains unknown.
Aquila et al. recognize that pandemic-related suicide risk factors include reduced social contacts as a result of isolation orders, fear of infection or of spreading the virus, economic anxiety, inability to visit patients in the hospital—some of whom may lose their lives, heightened risk of domestic violence, increased substance abuse, and decreased access to mental health treatment.
We can add to this list, including all of the ways the lack of in-person social support can adversely impact mental health and happiness, as well as the anxiety of contagion concerns, including speculation about how long potential symptoms would last. In terms of financial risk factors, economic effects stemming from job loss and business bankruptcies can devastate individuals and families who are suddenly suffering financially through a storm they never saw coming.
And then there is the anxiety of the unknown, concerning how long the pandemic will last. David Gunnell et al., examining issues of suicide risk and prevention in “Suicide Risk and Prevention during the COVID-19 Pandemic” (2020),[iii] predict that suicide may become a more imminent concern as the pandemic increases and results in longer-term impacts on vulnerable groups, the economy, and the general population as a whole. Further, they predict that COVID-19-related mental health issues and suicidal behavior will continue post-pandemic, perhaps peaking later than the pandemic itself.
Addressing Signs of Distress
In terms of perception and prevention, knowledge of pandemic-related risk factors equip us to recognize potential red flags in those around us that might indicate someone is at risk. In addition to noting changes in behavior, we recognize the importance of intervention if we simply hear someone talking about suicide, reminding ourselves that such thoughts are not a normal response to stress or depression, but an extreme contemplation that should be addressed immediately. We should be particularly attuned to someone who not only talks about suicide, but has actually considered methods of accomplishing the act of ending his or her life.
Addressing signs of pandemic-related distress and suicidal thoughts may save the lives of those who will never contract the virus, and potentially equip them to turn around and save the lives of others who are experiencing similar ideation. By caring for each other both physically and emotionally, we can endure the pandemic together, and both survive and thrive.
[ii] Aquila, Isabella, Matteo Antonio Sacco, Cristoforo Ricci, Santo Gratteri, Ludovico Montebianco Abenavoli, Antonio Oliva, and Pietrantonio Ricci. 2020. “The Role of the COVID-19 Pandemic as a Risk Factor for Suicide: What Is Its Impact on the Public Mental Health State Today?” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, COVID-19: Insights on the Pandemic’s Traumatic Effects and Global Implications, 12 (S1): S120–22. doi:10.1037/tra0000616.
[iii] Gunnell, David, Louis Appleby, Ella Arensman, Keith Hawton, Ann John, Nav Kapur, Murad Khan, Rory C. O’Connor, and Jane Pirkis. 2020. “Suicide Risk and Prevention during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The Lancet Psychiatry 7 (6): 468–71. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30171-1.