Suicide Rates Could be on the Rise as mental health services deteriorate owing to COVID-19

The British Medical Journal – BMJ- says it is important to remain alert to emerging risk factors for suicide amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In a new report, BMJ says it is also important to recognize how known risk factors may be exacerbated—and existing trends and inequalities entrenched—by the pandemic.

According to the report, there are concerns that rates of suicide may increase or have already increased at a time when many countries are facing stay-at-home restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Several factors underpin these concerns including a deterioration in population mental health, a higher prevalence of reported thoughts and behaviours of self-harm among people with COVID-19, problems accessing mental health services and evidence suggesting that previous epidemics such as SARS (2003) were associated with a rise in deaths by suicide.

“Widely reported studies modelling the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on suicide rates predicted increases ranging from 1 percent to 145 percent, largely reflecting variation in underlying assumptions,” the report reads.

Studies that have already been conducted are suggesting that children and young people’s mental health has been disproportionately affected, relative to older adults.

Although there are no figures available, the report says tackling known risk factors that are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic is crucial.

These include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, hopelessness, feelings of entrapment and burdensomeness, substance misuse, loneliness, domestic violence, child neglect or abuse, unemployment, and other financial insecurity.

“Appropriate services must be made available for people in crisis and those with new or existing mental health problems. Of greatest concern, is the effect of economic damage from the pandemic,” the report says in part.

While referencing previous studies, BMJ reports that during the 2008 economic crisis, rates of suicide increased in two-thirds of the 54 countries studied, particularly among men and in countries with higher job losses.

The Journal has therefore called for appropriate safety nets to be put in place or strengthened for people facing financial hardship.

It has also called for active labour market policies to help people who are unemployed obtain work.

The report has also urged for responsible media reporting, by promoting the importance of mental health support, signposting sources of help, reporting stories of hope and recovery and avoiding alarmist and speculative headlines that may heighten the risk of suicide.

The Journal has therefore called for appropriate safety nets to be put in place or strengthened for people facing financial hardship.

It has also called for active labour market policies to help people who are unemployed obtain work.

The report has also urged for responsible media reporting, by promoting the importance of mental health support, signposting sources of help, reporting stories of hope and recovery and avoiding alarmist and speculative headlines that may heighten the risk of suicide.

“One guiding principle, however, is that suicide is preventable, and action should be taken now to protect people’s mental health.”

“We must remain vigilant and responsive, sharing evidence early and internationally (such as in the International Covid-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration) in these evolving uncertain times,” the report cautions. 

Margaret Njuguna