According to many mental health experts, the ongoing toll of the global coronavirus pandemic is just beginning, and it is definitely too early to estimate the impact it will have going forward. The coronavirus pandemic represents a sudden, poorly understood threat to human health both physically and psychologically. Nonetheless, it is the new normal for millions of individuals across the globe. While death from the virus is the most obvious toll of the pandemic, some experts assert that the nation’s suicide rate will be the ultimate sign of the virus’s psychological toll.
Immediate and Future Impact of COVID-19
The immediate effect of the virus on mental health is not clear, although some authorities have asserted that lockdown conditions could exacerbate substance use disorders, mental health issues, and in extreme cases, death. The fact is that medical experts won’t know for some time if suicide rates spike in 2020 since every death must be assessed in detail in order to determine the correct cause. What is known is that the extended effect of COVID-19 on suicide rates will provide an insight into how prolonged uncertainty and ongoing anxiety affect the will to live.
Harvard psychology professor Matthew Nock sees the current pandemic as, “a natural experiment, in a way. There’s not only an increase in anxiety, but the more important piece is social isolation. We’ve never had anything like this—and we know social isolation is related to suicide.” Some think that the pandemic’s effect on suicide rates will be expressed via the population of individuals who are overly sensitive to feelings of self-destructive distress. Why would this be the case? Because many of these millions of individuals are prone to isolate themselves from the world’s chaos while at the same time thinking of a final exit plan.
Lack of Research
At this time there is little in the way of research which shows how this population may respond. For instance, a 1999 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine from researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserted that suicide rates spiked in areas affected by a natural disaster such as flood, earthquake, or hurricane. But this finding was retracted after researchers discovered an error led to the findings. They concluded there was, “no significant increase in suicide rates after natural disasters, either for all types of disasters combined or for individual types of disasters.”
Economic Hardship and Suicide Rates
The impact of economic hardship on suicide is clearer. U.S. suicide rates have increased steadily since the start of the century. Overall the figure has increased 35% across the majority of age groups, but the rate of increase approximately doubled following the 2008 economic downturn. It’s also known that recession-related job loss, evictions, and displacements are linked to a rise in suicide rates.
What does this mean for the current crisis the world is experiencing? According to Marianne Goodman, a psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, “I think during the actual crisis, suicide will be lower. And once the longer-term economic impact is felt, I suspect, suicide will be rising again.” Yet, among high-risk individuals, suicidal thoughts are now more frequent than before, new research suggests.
Pandemics Can Be Psychologically Upsetting
Scientists admit that the onset of a pandemic necessarily changes the mood and behavior of distressed people, albeit in ways that are not well understood. Yet Owen Muir, a mental health profession that treats highly suicidal individuals, said his own patients appear to be doing well, at least for now. He says this could be attributed to COVID-19 related adjustments. “The fact you could die any minute, that is a very different situation from previously, where you thought, ‘The only way I’m going to die is if I kill myself,’” he said.
“That theoretical struggle is very real now, in peoples’ minds, and what I’m seeing in many of my patients is that they make sense of it by wanting to help—like, now is the time to stay healthy and cope with this, for everyone’s sake.” Muir’s conclusion may seem ironic, but it could have the potential to lead to effective coping strategies that target people’s inherent altruism and diminish thoughts of self-harm.
Don’t Hesitate to Get Help
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