Recognize how COVID-19, suicide rates connect

AB Boyd | Cartoonist

Editor’s note: This editorial explores the risks of suicide. If you or a loved one are at risk, please stop here and contact the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.

In the midst of a pandemic as well as a non-stop parade of breaking news, the year 2020 is feeling more like a waking nightmare each day. And as the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect our daily lives, people around the world wake up each morning to something new to add to the devastation.

From a polarizing presidential election and an economic downturn to social unrest and racial injustice on top of a pandemic, the state of the world can feel overwhelming.

Even as we attempt to cope with the initial waves of the pandemic, an article published on Oct. 12 in the medical journal JAMA claimed that there is evidence that a “second wave” is coming. This “second wave,” rather than made up of an increase in COVID-19 cases, is characterized by the “rising rates of mental health and substance use disorders.”

These rising rates of mental health and substance use disorders can be attributed to a myriad of misfortunes. People who have lost a loved one during this pandemic are at risk in many additional ways. While they are necessary, social distancing and quarantine measures have escalated the emotional turmoil experienced by the families and friends in mourning. In fact, the emphasis on isolation has changed the way we as a nation, as well as individuals and communities, cope with tragedy.

The normal grieving process that people go through when they lose a loved one has changed in the face of all of these restrictions. The pandemic is limiting people’s interactions with their loved ones on their deathbed as well as their ability to see their body after they pass away. Like the semi-common practice of open casket funerals, viewing the body of a deceased loved one can help some people through the mourning process.

For those left untouched by the virus, an increase in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts could stem from financial issues, decreased in-person support, constant consumption of news and social distancing — which can evoke feelings of loneliness.

The overall feeling that the current state of the world invokes is sadness.

Rising rates

During the week of June 24 to 30 of this year, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use according to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, younger adults, minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers were concluded to have significantly worse mental health, increased substance use and increased suicidal ideation.

Although there are no U.S. statistics yet that directly tie an increase in suicides and COVID-19 in general populations, other countries are starting to note an increase.

In September, the Malawi police service reported a 57% increase in suicide rates to that point in 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, with some proposing it’s due to economic stresses of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Oct. 12, Japan’s National Police agency revealed that suicides increased 8.6% in comparison to the same time of year in 2019.

Even though there is no way to procure accurate quantitative evidence right now, several researchers predict that COVID-19 will severely affect suicide rates today as well as moving forward.

Limited social interaction contributes to feelings of loneliness, emptiness and possible issues with mental health, but this does not mean that social distancing guidelines should be bent in favor of a better mental state. This does not mean we should break social distancing guidelines to surround ourselves with our community or make ourselves happier. And this does not mean that these social distancing guidelines are directly responsible for a recent increase in people struggling with mental health and substance use.

Outside environmental factors — such as stress levels, relationships, loss and hardships — contribute to a person’s risk of developing a mental illness or considering suicide. However, a person’s genetics, brain chemistry and physical health can affect their mental health just as much or even more.

Not only are there many factors that contribute to mental illness and suicidal ideation, but suicide rates were already increasing even before the coronavirus pandemic entered the picture.

A study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics showed that suicide rates in the U.S. increased by 35% between 1999 and 2018 despite efforts to increase intervention and prevention efforts and lower suicide rates.


Even back in June, the CDC advocated for increased intervention and prevention efforts addressing mental health. One way we can support change is through increased education on wellness, mental illnesses and substance use.

“A public health/community strategy is critical to protect the health care system from becoming overwhelmed,” an article published in the medical journal JAMA said.

Although changes in how the U.S. runs public health strategies are few and far between, clinicians can aid in preventing this “second wave” of mental illness and substance abuse from taking over our lives. When someone experiences a loss in the family, primary care physicians can use screening tools like the PTSD checklist for post-traumatic stress symptoms to identify a person’s risk. In addition, they can use the Patient Health Questionnaire 9 to identify the symptoms of depression a person is showing.

Unfortunately, in many situations, it is up to friends, family and loved ones to notice if an individual is struggling with depression or any other form of mental illness. While the blame should not be put on the loved ones of someone who is struggling with mental illness, they can try their best to identify symptoms of mental illness and steer them in the direction to find the help they need.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-5, is a taxonomic and diagnostic text used by professionals and researchers to identify the characterizations, symptoms and treatment options for various mental illnesses. With all of the different diagnoses filling up that encyclopedic book, there is no way to summarize all the signs that you or a loved one is dealing with mental illness.

Because researchers are anticipating a rise in suicidal ideation due to COVID-19, here are a few common warning signs that someone is considering suicide according to the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education website:

  • Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Talking about feeling trapped
  • Withdrawing from social groups or isolating themselves
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
  • Sleeping too little or too much

However, these are not limited to symptoms of suicidal ideation. They could also be a sign of another form of mental illness as well as an increase in stressors. If you notice someone showing any of these signs, reach out to a medical professional or someone of authority who could help them.

All of these signs, as well as prevention efforts apply, at all times, not just in the middle of a pandemic. But it is good to take note of them and consider them in your day-to-day life because you will never know who in your life may be struggling with mental illness.

Without invalidating the struggles caused by either tragedy, we should acknowledge the connection between COVID-19 and diminishing mental health — including suicidal ideation — as well as their effect on ourselves and each other.