Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

A new observational study is the first to examine suicides occurring during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in multiple countries and finds that suicide numbers largely remained unchanged or declined in the pandemic’s early months, however continued monitoring is needed.

Inscription COVID-19 on global satellite map.

The study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal provides the best available evidence on the pandemic’s effects on suicide so far, however it only provides a snapshot of the first few months of the pandemic and effects on suicide might not necessarily occur immediately.

The study looked at numbers of suicides in 21 countries between 1 April and 31 July 2020 and compared these with trends in the previous one to four years.

Lead author, Professor Jane Pirkis, Director of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, Australia, says:

'We need to continue to monitor the data and be alert to any increases in suicide, particularly as the pandemic’s full economic consequences emerge. Policymakers should recognise the importance of high-quality, timely data to support suicide prevention efforts, and should work to mitigate suicide risk factors associated with COVID-19, such as the heightened levels of stress and financial difficulties that some people may experience as a result of the pandemic. Increasing mental health services and suicide prevention programmes, and providing financial safety nets may help to prevent the possible longer-term detrimental effects of the pandemic on suicide.'

It is likely that mental health effects of the pandemic will vary between and within countries, and over time, depending on factors such as the extent of the pandemic, the public health measures used to control it, the capacity of existing mental health services and suicide prevention programmes, and the strength of the economy and relief measures to support those whose livelihoods are affected by the pandemic.

Few studies have examined the effects of any widespread infectious disease outbreaks on suicide. The new study included around 70 authors from 30 countries who are members of the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration (ICSPRC), which came together to share knowledge about the impact of the pandemic on suicide and suicidal behaviour, and advise on ways to mitigate any risks.

Professor Keith Hawton, Director of the Centre for Suicide Research, University of Oxford, co-author and member of ICSPRC, said:

'It is reassuring that despite some dire early predictions about potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicides these turned out to be unduly pessimistic. But considerable efforts on the part of government and support agencies will be required to counter potential longer-term impacts which could influence suicide rates, especially those resulting from recession and mental health consequences of the pandemic.'

The authors found no evidence of an increase in suicide numbers in the early months of the pandemic in any of the countries included. In 12 areas there was evidence of a decrease in suicide, compared to the expected numbers.

The authors note that their findings could be explained by some of the steps that governments took in the various countries. For example, in many countries mental health services were increased or adapted to mitigate the potential impact of lockdown measures on mental health and suicide. Similarly, fiscal measures were put in place to buffer the financial hardship experienced by people who lost jobs or had to close their businesses as a result of stay at home orders. They also note that the pandemic might have heightened some factors that are known to protect against suicide, such as community support of vulnerable individuals, new ways of connecting with others online, and strengthened relationships through households spending more time together, a beneficial collective feeling of ‘being in it together’, as well as a reduction in everyday stresses for some people.

Writing in a linked Comment, Dr Stella Botchway and Professor Seena Fazel, University of Oxford, UK, say:

 

'… despite this initial snapshot, governments and services need to remain vigilant for a possible delayed increase in suicides as a result of the pandemic. Suicide can be a lagging indicator of psychosocial difficulties, influenced by medium-term and longer-term disruptions to civic life and the economy. Other work has shown that suicides can increase following economic recession, and such increases can be sustained for several years. Without counter-measures, ongoing reductions in economic activity can translate into individual financial and personal problems, such as job losses, reduced social status, housing instability, and relationship breakdowns. Alongside social isolation and disruption of normal routines, these factors can, in turn, increase the incidence of suicide through rises in mental health conditions such as depression as well as drug and alcohol misuse. Similar mechanisms might be relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftershocks.'

They continue:

'Reducing the global impact on mental health of the COVID-19 pandemic will involve continued monitoring alongside early intervention and investment into mental health services. Local, regional, and national strategies should not overlook at-risk groups, including those that might be hidden from view, such as people who are homeless, living in prison, or in abusive relationships. These strategies will be informed by consortia, such as the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration, allowing for ongoing surveillance, particularly of populations at higher risk. This collaboration can also lead to more consistent collection of high-quality suicide data across different countries. Pirkis and colleagues’ results are reassuring in that there has not been an initial clear increase in suicide deaths, but will need to be followed up across a wider set of countries over the next few years to investigate whether suicide will be one of the health-related aftershocks of the pandemic.'

Read the Article and Comment.

NIHR OXFORD HEALTH BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH CENTRE NEWS

Please follow the link below to read the news on the NIHR BRC website.

Similar stories

Mitigating Impacts of COVID-19 Pandemic on Parents and Carers During School Closures

The International Public Policy Observatory's (IPPO) Rapid Evidence Review has now been released. Co-authored by Professor Cathy Creswell, the Review was commissioned by the UK Department for Education following a recommendation from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

Improved Risk Estimation of Bipolar Spectrum Disorders in Adolescent Offspring of Bipolar Parents

This new study using Canadian and Swiss data showed that the risk calculator used to predict the likelihood of developing a major mood disorder was correct approximately 70% of the time. The study results suggest this may be a useful clinical tool in routine practice for improved individualised risk estimation of bipolar spectrum disorders among the adolescent offspring of a parent with a bipolar disorder.

Impact of COVID-19 Partial School Closures and Mental Health

New research found that secondary school students with access to on-site school provision were more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as perceiving their mental wellbeing to have deteriorated during the first national lockdown, compared to students receiving remote school provision. Importantly, the poorer mental health for the group accessing school was explained by their different backgrounds and certain risk factors, such as past mental health needs and upcoming examinations.

Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Eating Disorders

Using the electronic health records of over 5 million people aged under 30, researchers in the Oxford University Department of Psychiatry found that eating disorders were diagnosed significantly more commonly in 2020 than in previous years, with the rate increasing steadily throughout the year.

The Mental Health Impacts of Being an Olympian

The athletes competing in the Olympics mount a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders. Representing the pinnacle of human performance, Olympians are not merely idolized for their athletic abilities, but also often praised for their moral character, sportsmanship, and/or mental resilience.

Helping People with Psychosis Feel Less Distressed May Help Reduce the Risk of Self-harm

New research shows that by lessening the severity and impact of persecutory symptoms of psychosis, it may be possible to reduce the likelihood of someone with psychosis having thoughts of suicide or harming themselves.