A first-of-its-kind study found that in developed and upper-middle-income countries, the number of suicides in the early months of the pandemic remained largely unchanged or even declined from expected levels. Although scientists have noted some exceptions.
The coronavirus pandemic has greatly affected the mental health of many of us: not everyone was able to normally perceive self-isolation and "confinement" in four walls, someone was panicky afraid of infection, someone was afraid of the unknown and as if the understatement of what was happening around, someone lost loved ones, many - work and income. Experts reasonably feared that all this would lead to an increase in suicide cases: for example, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Great Britain, in 2020 a record number of children and adults sought psychological help.
However, a study in the first months of the pandemic found no signs of an increased risk of suicide - at least in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Previous evidence of the link between Covid-19 and suicide appears to have been largely based on unofficial sources of information or ignored pre-existing trends.
An international team of scientists analyzed data on suicide cases in 21 countries or a specific area (16 high-income countries and five upper middle-income countries), including Japan, several US states and parts of the UK. The result is a pattern of monthly suicide trends for the period from January 2019 to the end of March 2020.
The researchers then compared the model's predictions with recorded suicide episodes from April 1 to July 31, 2020. And the results generally showed no signs of an increase in suicide rates, with 12 of the 21 regions / countries showing, on the contrary, a clear decline from expected figures: 19% in New South Wales (Australia), 20% in Alberta (Canada), 24% in British Columbia (Canada), 15% in Chile, 51% in Leipzig (Germany), 6% in South Korea, 21% in New Zealand, 10% - in California (USA), by 21% - in Illinois (Cook County, USA), by 18% - in four counties of Texas (USA) and by 26% - in Ecuador.
“One of our arguments is isolation: while it apparently created quite a few mental health problems, in some respects - especially for families - it was able to provide some protection as people were together and therefore could be more supportive of each other.” noted Professor Keith Houghton, director of the Center for Suicide Research at the University of Oxford and co-author of the study published in The Lancet Psychiatry. In addition, the transfer to a remote study format helped some teenagers who had previously faced bullying in schools.
After accounting for data up to 31 October 2020, Victoria in Australia, Mexico City, and the Thames Valley in England also saw significant reductions in suicide rates (11%, 14% and 18%, respectively). However, there were exceptions to the general picture: for example, Vienna showed an increase in the number of suicides by 31% compared to the expected number, in Japan - by 5%, in Puerto Rico - by 29%, in St. Petersburg - by 5%, Brazilian in the municipality of Botucatu - 21%, in Peru - by 3%, in Estonia - by 6%, in Croatia - by 9%, in the German cities of Cologne and Leverkusen - by 11%.
“The lack of an increase in the number of suicides since the start of the pandemic can be attributed to various factors. First, early on, emphasis was placed on the possible adverse effects of demands to stay at home and to close schools and businesses. In some countries, there is empirical evidence that levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation increased during the early periods of staying at home. But it seems that this did not lead to an increase in the number of suicides - at least in the countries covered by our study. In some states, authorities have responded quickly to the mental health threat. Maintaining an emphasis on affordable and quality mental health care is critical. Finally, many countries have adopted financial support initiatives in a timely manner to mitigate the economic impact,”added the scientists.
As for the countries where there are more cases of voluntary death, scientists explain this as follows: the inhabitants of Japan could be influenced by the fact that during the pandemic several public figures committed suicide, and in general in the Land of the Rising Sun there are deplorable statistics on suicides … Puerto Rico, on the other hand, has been in a deep recession since 2006, so the previously high poverty rate could have exacerbated the economic consequences.
A limitation of the study was that the authors were unable to double-check the results adjusted for age, gender, and ethnicity. Plus, the analysis did not include low- or lower-middle-income countries, which account for 46% of suicides worldwide.
“We found anecdotal evidence from two lower middle income countries - Myanmar and Tunisia - and one low income country - Malawi. We were unable to test or use them in our work. However, according to estimates, in Malawi, in January-August 2020, the suicide rate increased by 57% compared to January-August 2019, in Tunisia - by 5% in March-May 2020. In Myanmar, in January-June 2020, on the contrary, there was a decrease of 2% compared to January-June 2019,”the authors of the work said. Fears that the number of suicides will increase as the economic consequences of the pandemic become clearer, they said.