Is Suicide Risk Increasing During the COVID Pandemic? What’s Going on and What Do We Know?
By Sophia Young, Research Associate, Brady
Early in the pandemic, as suicide and crisis helplines reported spikes in calls, experts warned that isolation, economic uncertainty, and increasing unemployment rates could pose a heightened risk to millions of Americans living with mental illness. In Los Angeles, calls to a suicide prevention hotline soared between February and March of 2020. In New York City, calls to the support line, NYC Well, increased by 50% as COVID-19 forced people to shelter in place. These trends were not unique to big cities. Colorado’s statewide crisis line as well as the HOPE Warm Line serving southern Arizona also witnessed substantial increases in call volume.
Data released at the end of the summer from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) corroborated expert’s warnings: the CDC’s survey of Americans found that 10.7 percent had seriously considered suicide within the past 30 days. Compared with previous findings from a similar survey, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which found that less than 5 percent of Americans reported serious consideration of suicide in 2018 and 2019, we can safely say that the number of Americans considering suicide during the pandemic has increased — alarmingly so.
The same CDC report found that the proportion of young adults who contemplated suicide during the pandemic was much higher than for the average American: one in four 18 to 24-year-olds had contemplated suicide during the pandemic. In 2019, that number was about one in ten. The CDC report from this year also reveals that essential workers are among those with the highest reported rates of distress — 22 percent considered suicide in the month before the survey. Tragically, this is something we’ve seen borne out: As deaths were surging in New York City early in the pandemic, an emergency room doctor who treated COVID-19 patients died by suicide in April — around the same time that a 23-year-old EMT who was working for the NYC Fire Department ended his life.
These are deeply disturbing reports. But it is important to note that while research shows suicide ideation is a risk factor for suicidal behavior, the majority of people with thoughts of suicide do not make suicide plans or attempts. In fact, we likely will not know how many people actually died by suicide in the United States during 2020 until early 2022 when the CDC releases this data.
Even so, local data is already showing that these reports are likely true. Police in Wichita, Kansas, reported that suicides were up more than 70% so far this year and Cook County, Illinois, is experiencing a rise in the number of suicides among Black residents. Even when national data becomes available, we will need to view it in light of, and in line with, existing trends and considerations before drawing conclusions about the pandemic’s impact.
In the meantime, while we cannot control the mental health stressors from the coronavirus pandemic, there are key actions we can take today to reduce the risk of suicide for our loved ones. Family and community support, or “connectedness,” is a protective factor that helps mitigate suicidal thoughts and behavior. It’s simple, we can take care of one another by checking in with our friends and family and, for the many of us who haven’t been able to see relatives and friends in-person for a while, we need to call or send loved ones a text and ask them how they’re really feeling. These conversations can enhance feelings of social connectedness, which have positive impacts on both our physical and mental health.
Unfortunately for those undergoing crises, we must also take note of access to highly lethal means. The CDC recognizes “easy access to lethal methods” as one of fifteen key risk factors for suicide death, and this year the US experienced unprecedented spikes in the number of gun sales. Between January and November of 2020, there was a 70% increase in background checks associated with the sale of a firearm compared to the same period in 2019.
With these surges in gun sales came reports of many first-time gun purchasers. Preliminary findings from the 2020 California Safety and Wellbeing study revealed that in California alone, an estimated 47,000 people acquired a firearm for the first time in response to the pandemic. Recent research on these COVID-19 firearm purchasers, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, indicates that those who bought a gun during the pandemic were more likely to report suicidal ideation in the past month when compared with firearm owners who did not buy a gun during the pandemic. Michael Anestis, the lead author of the study puts this into context: “The US is not guaranteed to see a surge in suicide deaths, but there is plenty of cause for concern and we likely will not know the true impact of the pandemic on suicide rates for several years. In the meantime, with an unprecedented surge in firearm sales in 2020 and new data showing that folks who purchased firearms during that time are more likely than others to have had suicidal thoughts, it is absolutely vital that we promote safe firearm storage in the home and temporary storage away from home during times of stress.”
To get a better sense of why Anestis’ message is so important, let’s talk about the link between guns and suicide. Guns are the most lethal commonly-used method in suicide attempts. While 90% of people who attempt suicide with a firearm will not survive, the odds of survival are much higher for those who attempt suicide by other methods.
With many new gun owners around the country, this message has never been more crucial: An online survey of 1105 people from May 2020 shows that about 40% of people who purchased a gun in response to the pandemic, and who did not previously have a firearm in their household, reported that at least one firearm was stored unlocked. The simple action of storing guns locked and unloaded can save a life — even your own. Research shows that firearm owners who kept their firearms locked or unloaded were at least 60% less likely to die from firearm-related suicide than those who store their firearms unlocked and/or loaded.
Many factors contribute to the risk of suicide, and in the midst of a pandemic that has fundamentally altered our lives, it can feel like a lot is out of our control. However, putting barriers in place to prevent easy access to lethal means can delay a suicide attempt in the event of a crisis, giving someone who is struggling more time to seek help. Storing your firearms safely just might give your daughter, brother, partner, or friend a second chance to live a full life.
Let’s commit to checking in on our friends and family and practicing safe gun storage today. We’re in this together.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 or text HOME to 741741.