As many parts of the world enacted varying degrees of lockdowns to mitigate the effect of COVID-19, one fear was that this might lead to an increase in suicides. A study published this week in Lancet Psychiatry looked at suicide statistics from 21 countries and found no apparent increase in suicides from April 1 to July 31, 2020. In 12 countries, the study found an apparent decline in suicides during that three-month period.
In general, based on the primary analysis, there does not appear to have been an increase in risk of suicide during the pandemic’s early months in the 21 countries for which we had data, and a number of countries or areas appear to have seen fewer suicides relative to the expected number.
The lack of increase in suicides since the pandemic began could be attributed to various factors. First, there was an early emphasis on the potential adverse effects of stay-at-home orders, school closures, and business shut downs. Empirical evidence began to emerge from some countries that self-reported levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking were heightened during the initial stay-at-home periods, but this does not appear to have translated into increases in suicides, at least in the countries in our study. In some countries, governments responded rapidly to the threat to mental health, implementing recommended approaches such as bolstering mental health services. Maintaining this emphasis on accessible, high-quality mental health care is crucial.
Second, certain protective factors might have been operating in the pandemic’s early months. Communities might have actively tried to support at-risk individuals, people might have connected in new ways, and some relationships might have been strengthened by households spending more time with each other. For some people, everyday stresses might have been reduced during stay-at-home periods, and for others the collective feeling of “we’re all in this together” might have been beneficial.
Finally, many countries rapidly enacted fiscal support initiatives to buffer the pandemic’s economic consequences. In many cases, this support is now being reduced or withdrawn. As it lapses, previously protected populations might face increasing stress. Suicide rates can rise during times of economic recession, so it is possible that the pandemic’s potential suicide-related effects are yet to occur.