COVID-19 a New Opportunity for Suicide Prevention

Megan Brooks

October 23, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic poses clear threats to mental well-being, but an increase in suicide is not inevitable if appropriate action is taken, one expert says.

Dr Christine Moutier

"Increases in suicide rates should not be a foregone conclusion, even with the negative effects of the pandemic. If the lessons of suicide prevention research are heeded during and after the pandemic, this potential for increased risk could be substantially mitigated," writes Christine Moutier, MD, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in an invited communication in JAMA Psychiatry.

"This is a moment in history when suicide prevention must be prioritized as a serious public health concern," she writes.

Mitigating Suicide Risk

Although evidence from the first 6 months of the pandemic reveal specific effects on suicide risk, real-time data on suicide deaths are not available in most regions of the world. From emerging data from several countries, there is no evidence of increased suicide rates during the pandemic thus far, Moutier notes.

Still, a number of pandemic-related risk factors could increase individual and population suicide risk.

They include deterioration or recurrence of serious mental illness; increased isolation, loneliness, and bereavement; increased use of drugs and alcohol; job loss and other financial stressors; and increases in domestic violence.

There are mitigating strategies for each of these "threats to suicide risk." The science is "very clear," Moutier told Medscape Medical News.

"Suicide risk is never a situation of inevitability. It's dynamic, with multiple forces at play in each individual and in the population. Lives can be saved simply by making people feel more connected to each other, that they are part of a larger community," she added.

The Political Will

Moutier notes that prior to the pandemic, four countries ― Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Australia ― had fully implemented national suicide prevention plans and had achieved reductions in their national suicide rates. However, in the United States, the suicide rate has been steadily increasing since 1999.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released in August 2020 found that 40% of US adults reported symptoms of depression, anxiety, or increased substance use during COVID-19 and that about 11% reported suicidal ideation in the past month, all increases from prior surveys.

COVID-19 presents a "new and urgent opportunity" to focus political will, federal investments, and the global community on suicide prevention, Moutier writes.

"The political will to address suicide has actually moved in the right direction during COVID, as evidenced by a number of pieces of legislation that have suddenly found their way to passing that we've been working on for years," she said in an interview.

One example, she said, is the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law earlier this month by President Donald Trump.

As previously reported, under the law, beginning in July 2022, Americans experiencing a mental health crisis will be able to dial 9-8-8 and be connected to the services and counselors at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Moutier reports no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Psychiatry. Published October 16, 2020. Full text

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