As with pandemics past, people are weathering the COVID-19 2020 pandemic differently. You may be fortunate to have a job where you can telework from home with your family—thereby maintaining both health and wealth, surrounded by your loved ones. Not everyone, however, is so lucky. Job loss, financial stress, isolation, anxiety, and other pandemic related stressors may lead to substance abuse, exacerbate existing mental health challenges, or create new ones.
A significant concern we always have when individuals are faced with negative life consequences, particularly several at once, unexpectedly, and especially when there are pre-existing stressors, is the risk of becoming suicidal. By recognizing and addressing risk factors now, we may be able to intervene and offer lifesaving assistance to individuals in crisis.
Suicide Risk and Google Search Results
According to a study by Emily A. Halford et al. (2020), a review of Google Trends[i] data focusing on the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic reveal that although searches related to suicide were down, searches related to financial distress and other risk factors indicate that people are potentially suffering from potential long-term risk factors for suicide.[ii]
In discussing the value of analyzing online searches, Halford et al. note that Google searches for phrases such as “painless suicide,” “how to suicide,” and “how to kill yourself” were better predictors of completed suicides in the United States than self-report indications of suicide risk. They also note that unemployment-related searches are also frequently associated with suicide, and are particularly relevant given the significantly negative economic impact of COVID-19.
Google Search Topics
In the time period they examined, Halford et al. found the following Google searches regarding financial difficulty to be dramatically elevated: “I lost my job,” “unemployment,” and “furlough.” They also note an elevation for searches for the Disaster Distress Helpline, promoted as a source of assistance for people impacted by COVID-19, and a moderate elevation for other Google searches related to help-seeking and mental health concerns generally. The authors conclude that although suicide rates have decreased within the early stage of the pandemic, COVID-19 may have created more suicide risk factors that could result in long-term increases in suicidality and the rate of suicide.
In addition, Halford et al. note that COVID-19 and the national response may end up being a “perfect storm” for suicide risk factors. They explain that in addition to financial difficulties, isolation, living an unhealthy home-life, grief associated with the loss of loved ones, as well as other risk factors that are exacerbated during this time period may cause an elevation in suicidality and future suicide attempts.
Pre- and Post-Pandemic Predictors
Regarding timing, Halford et al. recognize that previous studies suggest that suicides are down immediately following national disasters, such as 9/11, but may increase several months afterwards. They cite as examples the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, and the 1918 flu pandemic. Accordingly, they examined Google searches between March 3, 2019 and April 18, 2020, noting that Feb. 29, 2020 marked the first COVID-19-related death in the United States, and the following day (March 1, 2020) marked the start of the early pandemic period, including the shift in public perception regarding the nature of the public health emergency.
Post-Pandemic Suicide: COVID-19 as a Bigger Wave
Katerina Standish, in “A Coming Wave: Suicide and Gender after COVID-19” (2020) also suggests that suicides will increase after the pandemic.[iii] While she notes that the rate may depend on gender, she explains that studies indicate that due to intense lockdowns, suicide is suppressed by the pandemic, but will increase afterwards.
Regarding the impact of COVID-19 as compared to pandemics past, Standish cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in observing that the widespread insecurity that follows an epidemiological crisis is linked with increased death by suicide (CDC, 2020), and that fear, social isolation, unemployment, and economic instability leads experts to conclude that the “consequences of COVID-19 may be larger than those in previous pandemic episodes.”
Saving Lives Now
Predicting a post-pandemic wave of suicide means taking steps now to prevent it. Intentionally reaching out to those who live alone, have lost jobs, are becoming withdrawn or otherwise have dropped off the radar, is a great way to check in on those who may be suffering. Thankfully, there is a multitude of video conferencing options available to establish a more intimate level of contact than simply sending an email, text, or social media post. Reaching out sooner rather than later may be a way to avert disaster by providing individuals in crisis a literal lifeline of communication, and if appropriate, a referral to professional help before it’s too late.
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[ii] Emily A. Halford, Alison M. Lake, and Madelyn S. Goul, “Google searches for suicide and suicide risk factors in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic,” July 24, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0236777.
[iii] Katerina Standish, “A Coming Wave: Suicide and Gender after Covid-19,” Journal of Gender Studies, July, 2020. doi:10.1080/09589236.2020.1796608.