Does the Pandemic Pose an Increased Risk of Suicide?

by Paola Scharberg


Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. When a person decides to attempt suicide, there are typically many reasons behind this decision. Some of these are internal such as mental health issues and some others are external causes like stressful events and financial problems. However, there are certain extreme situations that can bring someone to end their own life, and a pandemic may be one of these reasons. Although there is no connection at the moment, social isolation, increase in firearm purchases, and lack of access to mental healthcare are a terrible combination that may incite suicide attempts.


original photo by Paola Scharberg

Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist who wrote Le Suicide in 1897; he has been very influential in the disciplines of sociology and is widely taught to psychology students. One of the key concepts in Durkheim’s Suicide is social integration; he argues that the more socially integrated a person is, the less likely the person will attempt suicide. In addition, a debilitated social cohesion can be the cause of one of the four types of suicide Durkheim develops in his theory, anomic suicide. A person who experiences anomie feels disconnected from society, this may occur during times of social, economic, or political disruption that result in quick and intense changes to societal and every-day life. Keeping this in mind, an increase in suicide rates during the current coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing that goes along with it would be logic.


Many psychologists believe that the current Covid-19 pandemic will result in a surge of suicides worldwide. Mental health and social isolation paired with stress, mass unemployment, economic crisis, and homelessness can be the last straw for many who are at risk of suicide. According to an article in the American Psychological Association, suicide is the second cause of death in people from ages 10 to 34 in the United States, and the fourth in those aged 35 to 54. Karen Munkel, a licensed clinical social worker at UMSL states, “Often times people that are suicidal feel hopeless or a burden to others. We all look for ways to fix what we see the issue is in our lives and folks that are thinking of suicide often think that it is the only way to solve it.” Hopelessness seems to be a common denominator when it comes to suicide ideations.


College students are at risk population when it comes to suicide. The University of Missouri – St. Louis has a prevention and training program called Ask, Listen, Refer. The program explains how certain factors increase suicide risk. Some of these include being a victim of rape or sexual assault (13 times more likely to consider suicide), being gay, lesbian, or transgender (3 to 4 times more likely), adult American Indian or Alaskan Natives are more likely than non Natives as are Asian-Americans students, and African-American students aged between 18-24 and white or European men are also more likely to commit suicide. The training program explains the many risk factors that are associated with suicide such as depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, substance abuse, history of trauma or abuse, family violence, social isolation, and possession of firearms. Suicide is rarely the result of just one factor and normally there are several reasons that play a role, some of these may include a recent stressful event, interpersonal or identity issues, conflict with family, exposure to suicidal behaviors of others, and prolonged stress factors.


Access to healthcare, especially mental healthcare, is a crucial aspect when speaking about suicide. Ask, Listen, Refer states, “most depressed people are not suicidal, most suicidal people are depressed.” Depression is among the health conditions that are the most costly in the United States reaching $2.4 trillion, according to the American Psychological Association. This amount includes people’s out-of-pocket costs as well as private and government insurance programs. Thervo, a company that connects customers to local professionals, says the average 45-60 minute therapy session costs between $60 and $120 and most American’s are paying between $20 and $250 per session depending on the amount of sessions that they book and if these sessions are covered by health insurance or not. Currently, 44 million Americans don’t have health insurance and another 38 million have inadequate health insurance, according to PBS. Munkel explains the importance about professional help and says, “Suicide and mental health issues are not something that most are trained to treat. It's important to get the person help from a trained professional.”


There are many protective factors that decrease the likelihood of someone attempting suicide and these include having a support system from family and friends, access to mental health, ability to manage emotions, and reducing access to firearms, among many others. Munkel explains that suicide prevention programs work and suicide is preventable. She asserts “It is so important to have those around them intervene to provide support and hope and get them to help.” She debunks the idea that talking to a person about suicide will give them the idea and instead, she says that asking the person directly if they are having suicide thoughts is the first step in the Ask, Listen, Refer, program.


Will the coronavirus pandemic reveal the amount of untreated Americans that deal with depression? From what we know, suicide does not stem from just one issue. It is still too early to know what the increase in suicides has been since the outbreak but what we do know is that from 1999 to 2017 suicide rates have increased 33% in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. Is this increase an indication of something larger? The Health Resources and Services Administration claims that there is currently another epidemic, a loneliness epidemic, and states that one in five Americans admit to feeling lonely or socially isolated. In fact, in the last decade, household sizes have decreased and the amount of older adults living alone now reaches 28%. There are many health risks associated with loneliness and an article in the American Psychological Association states “lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder.” Loneliness has reached an all time high, before the pandemic. Has the pandemic exacerbated the fact that three in five Americans feel lonely? Is the pandemic revealing how many lack genuine and trustworthy human connections?


The amount of people dealing with depression, the lack of access to mental healthcare, loneliness and lack of meaningful relationships, are just some of the components that contribute to higher suicide rates. Some things we can do to mitigate this issue if we’re ever in a situation where a person seems at risk is speaking to them clearly and asking about their intentions or plans to end their life in a straightforward manner. It’s also important to ask about resources like people they really trust and are supportive; staying calm and validating their feelings, being non-judgmental, and getting professional help for them are good tips to be aware of. There are many resources available for students at UMSL, including the Ask, Listen, Refer suicide prevention training program, counseling services are accessible by calling (314) 516-5711. The phone number for after hours crisis Counseling Services is (855) 275-0210 and for the Life Crisis Hotline call (314) 647-4357.

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