Suicide and COVID-19: ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’
By tonydavid, on 8 February 2021
Suicidologists, not famed for their optimism, are bracing themselves for an increase in suicide rates following the pandemic. Some have called it a perfect storm (1). It is not an easy subject to discuss for two main reasons. A person bereaved by suicide described it to me as like having a hand grenade explode in your living room. But precisely because suicide is such a singular event, it can only really be studied – in a way that useful lessons can be learned – from a distance, looking at large numbers and trends over time, by taking a kind of aerial view. The other reason is contagion. That’s why there are strict guidelines from the ‘Samaritans’ and others, on the way suicide is reported in the media (2) – which include avoidance of sensationalism, of the idea that the act is heroic, dwelling on methods, and that suicide was inevitable – for fear of copycats. Indeed the worst kind of newspaper reports did emerge early in the pandemic from India of people unexpectedly and violently taking their own lives after being told they had the virus but this did not continue and mercifully did not foretell of any similar trends. And I am conscious of even now having to be careful about my use of language even in the context of an article intended for a largely academic and educated audience (3,4).
Even asking about suicidal thoughts in a clinical context has made people anxious that it ‘puts thought into people’s heads’. Reassuringly, summarising several studies on this question, authors of a systematic review conclude that it is safe and can, as would be hoped, relieve distress (5). Our instincts and those motivating the bulk of mental health awareness campaigns tell us that it is good to talk. I should add that listening to someone who looks you in the eye and tells you of their intention to kill themselves feels like that grenade has just landed in your lap. It’s not an easy subject to talk or hear about.
Knowing of the possibility of suicide is arguably the uniquely human existential curse, as elaborated by 20th Century philosophers like Heidegger. But does being reminded of it really make a difference? Goethe’s hapless hero Werther takes his own life due to unrequited love. This sparked a minor craze in the mid 1770s of imitations by romantic young men donning the same blue coat and yellow waistcoat, and leaving the tell-tale eponymous novel by their sides. The moral panic that ensued has repeated itself many times with ‘13 Reason’s Why’ being a notable recent example (6).
Such outbreaks, spatial-temporal clustering to use the technical term, are fiendishly hard to prove statistically (7). In the age of social media and the internet the ‘where’ of a suicide hardly matters – unless within an institution like a prison or a psychiatric hospital – and the timing of a cluster is not obvious either; the next day, week, month? Indeed if there is to be an increase in suicides in the wake of this pandemic when should we expect it? Suicide statistics accumulate slowly and in the UK may wait months for a coroner’s verdict. Suicide is, thankfully, rare enough that it takes a while to see enough instances to say whether rates have increased even nationally, in comparison to, for example, the same time last year, even using provisional statistics.
Efforts have been accelerated around the world by the pandemic to provide real-time surveillance information so that rates can be tracked and if rising, perhaps mitigated (8). Early reports from Queensland Australia (pop approx. 5m) have made use of police reports to the coroner. There were tragically 434 suicides from February through August 2020, a rate which did not differ compared to the preceding 5 years (9). The social context of the suicides did not show any particular emphasis on say unemployment or domestic violence and just 36 were judged initially at least as being related to Covid-19 – in what way, was not made explicit. A study from Japan (10), which has suffered less than the most European countries from the pandemic, normally has an average of 1596 suicides per month but this dropped by 14% between February and June last year but then increased by 16% in July to October. Interpreting such fluctuation is tricky. Could it be that suicide was delayed during the first wave only to rebound or are we seeing a cumulative effect? The study authors wonder whether it has to do with the prospect of withdrawal of government financial support packages. Work in progress reported by the UK’s National Confidential Enquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health shows no increase in the monthly average from April-August 2020 compared with Jan-March (11). A similar picture of no increases is emerging from Norway (12) and preliminary data from the US (8).
The nearest we have in the UK to official rolling figures are monthly statistics on mortality in people under 18 (13). In the 82 days before the first lockdown in March 2020 there were a heart-rending 26 deaths by suicide compared with 25 in the first 56 days after, an post-lockdown increase in rate by about 40% but with a very wide margin of error such that the difference fails to meet conventional levels of statistical significance. A third of the young people were known to services.
Experience from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Hong Kong in the spring of 2003 – also caused by a coronavirus (14) showed an uptick of about 30% in deaths by suicide paralleling SARS mortality – over its 4 month course (15). This affected older women particularly, a group more prone to suicide in China for some reason unlike the general rule around the world that older men have the highest rates. However the summer peak did not occur leading the authors to wonder if suicide had simply been brought forward by the epidemic (16).
What of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19? Very little data on suicide are available but one US (17) and one Swedish study (18) using fairly reliable contemporaneous figures found no increase. It’s true, that there was a lot going on then! The Great War (like all wars) showed the expected drop in suicide, perhaps due to an increase in social cohesion, followed by an increase which coincided with Spanish flu, so teasing out the effects of each is impossible. As an aside, rates following the two world wars did rise again but not quite to pre-war levels and then peaked around the great depression. Rates in Europe and the UK have been gradually falling ever since. Indeed if there is a predictable harbinger of increased suicide on the large demographic scale it is economic hardship. It is therefore suicide rates over the next few years that will be most scrutinised.
There is no vaccine for suicide but there are some ways to increase immunity. Social proximity, economic support for those in poverty, agile and responsive mental health services, control of alcohol consumption being the most obvious.
One of my patients etched on my memory suffered depression severe enough to require in-patient care. He was driven to despair by religious guilt over a seemingly minor misdemeanour. As his mood improved with antidepressants and psychological support there seemed to be a glimmer of light, and he’d had enough of all that ‘religious nonsense’. I was reassured only for him to take his own life dramatically during a period of home leave a few weeks later (see 19). My lesson: whatever binds people together in society – shared values, beliefs, rituals – keeps us alive, regardless of their rationality.
In sum, when it comes to suicide, especially in the midst of a pandemic, it may be good to talk but it depends what you say. We might remember the WW2 safety slogan – “careless talk costs lives”. Perhaps the next mental health awareness campaign should be promoting the benefits of listening. Listening to what people are saying as well as what evidence and data are showing; we all need to try and learn from that.
And for every Werther there is a Papageno from the Magic Flute or George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – numinous tales of people turning away from suicide thanks to others sharing ways to value continued living – despite moments of desperation. Don’t ever say it’s inevitable.
Professor Anthony David
Director, UCL Institute of Mental Health
- Reger MA, Stanley IH, Joiner TE. Suicide mortality and coronavirus disease 2019—a perfect storm? JAMA Psychiatry. 2020. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2764584
- World Health Organization. Preventing suicide: A resource for media professionals. 2017 https://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/resource_booklet_2017/en/.
- Gunnell D, Appleby L, Arensman E et al. Suicide risk and prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet Psychiatry 2020. 7: 468–71. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32330430
- Hawton K, Marzano L, Fraser L, Hawley M, Harris E, Lainez Y. Reporting on suicidal behaviour and covid-19—need for caution. Lancet Psychiatry 2021. 8:15-7. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30484-3.
- Polihronis C, Cloutier P, Kaur J, Skinner R, Cappelli M. What’s the harm in asking? A systematic review and meta-analysis on the risks of asking about suicide-related behaviors and self-harm with quality appraisal, Archives of Suicide Research, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2020.1793857
- Ortiz P, Khin E. Traditional and new media’s influence on suicidal behavior and contagion. Behaviour Science and Law. 2018. 36:245–256.
- Niedzwiedz C, Haw C, Hawton K, Platt S. The definition and epidemiology of clusters of suicidal behavior: a systematic review. Suicide Life Threatening Behavior.2014. 44, 569–581.
- John A, Pirkis A, Gunnell D, Appleby L, Morrissey J. Trends in suicide during the covid-19 pandemic: Prevention must be prioritised while we wait for a clearer picture. BMJ 2020;371:m4352
- Leske S, Kõlves K, Crompton D, Arensman E, Leo DD. Real-time suicide mortality data from police reports in Queensland, Australia, during the COVID-19 pandemic: an interrupted time-series analysis. Lancet Psychiatry 2021; 8: 58–63
- Increase in suicide following an initial decline during the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan. Tanaka T, Okamoto S. Nature: Human Behaviour. 2021. doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-01042-z
- National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health. Suicide in England since the COVID-19 pandemic- early figures from real-time surveillance. 2020. http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=51861
- Qin P, Mehlum L. National observation of death by suicide in the first 3 months under COVID-19 pandemic. Acta Psychiatr Scand 2020.pmid: 33111325
- National Child Mortality Database. Child suicide rates during the covid-19 pandemic in England: real-time surveillance. 2020. https://www.ncmd.info/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/REF253-2020-NCMD-Summary-Report-on-Child-Suicide-July-2020.pdf
- Rogers JP et al. Psychiatric and neuropsychiatric presentations associated with severe coronavirus infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis with comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet Psychiatry 2020. 7: 611–27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32437679
- Chan SM et al. 2006. Elderly suicide and the 2003 SARS epidemic in Hong Kong. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2006. 21: 113–18.
- Cheung YT, Chau PH, Yip PSF. A revisit on older adults suicides and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Hong Kong. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2008. 23: 1231–38
- Wasserman IM. The impact of epidemic, war, prohibition and media on suicide: United States, 1910–1920. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior 1992. 22: 240–54.
- Rück C, Mataix-Cols D, Malki K, Adler M, Flygare O, Runeson B, Sidorchuk A. Will the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a tsunami of suicides? A Swedish nationwide analysis of historical and 2020 data. medRxiv preprint doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.10.20244699
- David A. Into the Abyss: a neuropsychiatrist’s notes on troubled lives. Oneworld Publications, 2020, London.