- Studies show that the overall suicide rate decreased by three percent in 2020
- Historical data shows that suicide rates are more likely to increase during pandemics
- While these are optimistic results, other studies show there is still a risk in the number of suicides increasing as the pandemic continues
Historical Data of Suicide Rates During Pandemics
Concern over increased suicide rates during pandemics is rooted in history. The suicide rate has increased during other pandemics, most notably Spanish flu, the Ebola virus outbreak, and the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong. Disease outbreaks and pandemics exacerbate the risk factors for suicide in vulnerable populations. Lockdowns, business closures, social distancing, and other disruptions can increase or cause anxiety, fear, isolation, financial stress, and relationship issues. Age, race, time of year, and pre-existing mental health conditions are also major factors in the suicide rate. For example, adolescents and elderly adults are more vulnerable to social isolation.
The suicide rate in the United States increased by 35 percent from 1999 to 2018. Because of historic increases in suicide rates during pandemics and this jump in the national suicide rate, there was “concern that the number of deaths would increase in 2020.” However, a new study reveals that, despite the predictions, the overall suicide rate actually decreased in 2020.
Suicide Rates Decline in 2020
A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compared 2020 death records from the National Center for Health Statistics to 2019 data. Researchers found that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the “provisional number of suicides was three percent lower” in 2019 than 2020. The study notes that the most striking difference was in April. The suicide rate declined by 14 percent in April 2020 compared to April 2019. The decline, however, was not true for all segments of the population.
Although the overall suicide rate decreased, suicide rates were disproportionately higher among men, people of color, and young adults. When sorted by demographic data, females experienced the highest decline in suicide rates at eight percent, while males, who tend to have higher suicide rates generally, saw the lowest decline in suicide rates at two percent. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. among all ages but is highest among middle-aged white men, who accounted for more than 69 percent of all suicides. According to this CDC study, the number of suicides in 2020 was highest among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) persons (23.6 per 100,000), while the number of suicides increased by 5 percent for Hispanic males.
These findings are consistent with mental health statistics published in August 2020. In a separate study by the CDC, researchers found that, between June 24 and 30, young adults and people of color, along with caregivers and essential workers, reported “disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.” Out of just over 5,400 respondents, 25.5 percent of those who had “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days” were between the ages of 18 and 25. Hispanic and non-Hispanic (Black) respondents made up 18.6 and 15.1 of those respondents, respectively.
Of course, this data presents just a snapshot and does not track the full length of the pandemic. Studies show that during natural disasters, the risk of suicide decreases in the short term but increases in the long term. Japan reported a lower number of deaths by suicide in the earliest phase of the pandemic, but this number began to “exceed historical records by July 2020.”
While we await statistics about the national suicide rate for 2021, physicians should consider the impact of the pandemic on their patients’ mental health. By nurturing the patient-provider relationship, engaging in open discussions about mental health, and checking in on patients that could slip through the cracks without intervention, physicians can help patients stay safe.